It’s three p.m. on the Sunday before your math midterm, a windless sunny afternoon in the mid 40s. The trees have turned a pleasant reddish-yellow, like fire warming up the chilly November day. You cross Elm St. and traverse Cross Campus, where a few friends of yours are tossing a Frisbee. One of them waves at you and throws you the disk. You toss the disk back and reluctantly head downstairs. A long day it will be, you think, remembering a few days ago when you entered Bass in the afternoon — and by the time you were kicked out at 1:45 a.m., it was pitch black outside. The weeks have been atemporal, and daylight hours have been slipping away without your noticing.
The first floor of Bass is packed, almost as if everyone else is preparing for their math midterm also. A dark ocean of heads staring down at notebooks and screens. The air feels congealed, inhibiting all forms of human interactions. You swipe in and turn right, hoping to find an empty study room. But you don’t find one. The one at the end is occupied by someone playing League of Legends. You want to swing open the door and kick him out. Instead, you walk through the entire first floor of Bass. All individual carrels are taken. You move on to the end of the first floor. Before you head downstairs, you look back: quietly, regally, stands the Bass whiteboard.
On the whiteboard is a flock of handprint turkeys, drawn in purple, green and brown markers. Most of them have a smiley face instead of a beak. A few of them gobble. Another few wear a hat. The purple one in the middle wears a dollar sign on its body. The one on the bottom right corner wants to be a peacock, wearing colorful feathers like a Christmas tree. This is too cute, you think, so you take a picture before you head downstairs.
You don’t remember the first time you saw this whiteboard at Bass—maybe it wasn’t there when you first came to Yale—nor have you ever seen anyone contribute to this whiteboard. But since the very first sight of the whiteboard, you habitually stopped and took a minute to look at it. You used to think it was just a regular bulletin board covered in flyers of big-name guest speakers. But no: on this board, you see the presence of real human life. Take this mob of turkeys, for example. You don’t know to whom these hands belong, but you know there’s a real human behind each of them. You can picture these exhausted souls standing in front of the board, tracing their hands with a marker, and adding that playful smile on the thumb. This board helps you understand that Bass is full of real people like you, not a crowd of soulless studying machines.
Heading downstairs, you recall another time you were in front of the whiteboard, which was filled up with book recommendations. You saw books you’d read before: Purple Hibiscus, Pachinko (appeared on the board twice) and The Book of Unknown Americans. You didn’t know who had put these books up on the board, but you felt a growing companionship with the strangers all the same. You even picked up some new books because of the board’s recommendations: Altai, Homegoing, a few books by Ocean Vuong. You ended up liking Ocean Vuong so much you also began to read his poetry. “On earth we’re briefly gorgeous,” he writes. One day, you saw Vuong would come in April for a talk. You were so excited you almost fell from your bed, and you RSVP’d without hesitation. Little did you know that this talk would be cancelled by the pandemic, along with your graduation. You were banished from New Haven before you knew. The end of four briefly gorgeous years.
You’re lucky enough to find an empty study room downstairs. After two hours of grinding, you close your computer and let your mind wander. About an hour ago, you overheard someone in the bathroom, comforting a friend who got dumped by her boyfriend. “The way he did it,” she cried, “I feel my dignity has been destroyed.” Tough, you thought. The guy you overheard, irate, interrupted the girl and told her to “forget your garbage ex.”
You think of the whiteboard you saw at the beginning of the school year: Goal for the coming semester? Some people wrote sleep, while others strived to do more than zero readings. Some of your senior classmates wanted to get paid or get into Yale Grad School. One appearing-to-be high-school senior wrote “Get into Yale.” But the two things that caught your attention: Love and Happiness. Similar phrases repeated so many times: “Kick ass.” “Balance.” “Have fun.” Around “find love” surrounds numerous arrows saying “same sis, same.”
You secretly prayed for love and happiness, too. Remember Camp Yale in your first year? When your FroCo asked you to write a letter to yourself at the end of your first year? Do you remember what you wrote? Now, you are approaching the end of your Yale career. You will get your diploma and a job soon. You’re mostly content with life. But when you see these wishes for “love” and “happiness,” you still genuinely relate. A probable first-year wrote “idk, maybe adapt to Yale.” It reminds you of your first year, when you just broke up with your significant other from home, when you struggled to find friends, when you didn’t know what you wanted out of life. You feel for this little frosh. You want to give them a hug. You want to tell them, “Be patient. Life will be fine.”
You think of your favorite Ocean Vuong line: “Don’t we touch each other just to prove we’re still here?” Now, in front of the magical Bass whiteboard, an anonymous vulnerability bonds all of you together. Despite touching nobody, you feel as if you are standing next to everybody, arms around their shoulders.
Tony Hao | firstname.lastname@example.org