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Carry me back to old New Haven (Mar. 1994)

Yale, where obsessive-compulsiveness is a virtue, lack of sleep a badge of honor, and excess in all things the rule, is described by almost everyone who experiences it in one word: intense. On my very first visit to Yale, as I was shown across the Old Campus by my overnight host, I admired the beauty and calm of the place. “Enjoy it now,” said my guide, grimly. “This is the last time you’ll be here without a knot of guilt in the pit of your stomach.” At the time, I thought she was joking.

She wasn’t. Whatever one’s obsession—medieval history, lightweight crew, front-page reporting, marathon drinking—at Yale one pursues it with single-minded, wild-eyed, fanatical zeal, or pursues it not at all. At times the University resembles some giant social experiment: Put 5,000 Type-A personalities in one place, and let them fight it out among themselves.

Some forms of this competitiveness are more overt than others. Last spring I heard that two of my classmates were engaged in a contest to determine who could study the most. They recorded the time spent working each week on a chart tacked to the wall, and whoever logged the most hours was taken out for a sub or a slice of pizza at the end of the week. True story.

Like the cold which everyone living in a dorm invariably catches, such attitudes seem contagious, infecting everyone who breathes Yale’s hothouse atmosphere. After two years of such forced “intensity,” I needed a break; I wanted to fill my lungs with the fresh air of life outside.

Escape offered itself to me in one of several forms: I could transfer, drop out, take a semester off, or go abroad. The last option seemed the least drastic choice, especially since the program I chose, at the Paul Mellon Centre in London, was a Yale institution that awarded Yale credit. Informally known as “Yale in London,” the program was nothing like its American namesake.

Enrolling only 13 students and employing four teachers, our classes—centering on British art, drama, literature, and history—met once a week for two hours. The rest of our time in London was left free to explore the city, visit museums, see plays, and wander through the parks. Our weekends were filled with trips to Dublin, or Amsterdam, or Paris; on our two-week break we went farther afield, to Spain, and Italy, and Greece.

Here at last I had the time to sit and sip coffee in a café, the energy to go to art galleries and exhibits, the motivation to read books for my own pleasure and not for class. There were no extracurriculars to clutter up one’s schedule, no crushing workload to lie awake worrying about. This, I thought triumphantly (and not a little self-righteously), is how school should be.

After the euphoria accompanying my unaccustomed leisure had subsided, however, a strange craving for the constant stimulation of Yale set in. My routine in London was pleasant, laid back—all the things I had yearned for so fervently—but where was the drama, the urgency, (forgive me) the intensity? It pained me to admit it, but I missed the manic, frenzied pace of life at Yale. The electrified atmosphere on campus makes everything that happens there more vivid, more concentrated, more real. Call me a masochist, but I couldn’t wait to get back to New Haven. To paraphrase Woody Allen: Life at Yale is insane, it’s messy, it’s chaotic—and it’s all over much too quickly.

Filed under 1990s
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