On the past

In grateful memory of Dean Woodard

We see our schools—our institutions—as timeless, unchanging. That’s often why we go to places lauded for their centuries of accumulated wisdom and architecture, after all.

And we see the authority figures within them as guiding, enduring points of reference, fixed as stars.

When we leave, we encase a place in memory just as it was for us. When we return, we expect it to be the same. And for the most part it will hold true: each courtyard just as manicured and green, each stone pile of a building always catching the golden afternoon light. When the physical fixtures change, it can be jarring—but the spirit of the place stays intact. Over time our memories sift away to hold less of the physical space than the community that kept us transfixed within it.

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 9.15.20 AMStudents are temporary inhabitants of a school; that we know. We move in and out in clockwork motion, making the place ours, defining its culture, and just as ceaselessly moving on, leaving it all behind for another class, another club, another culture.

But what of the professors and leaders? The dining hall staff who prepared our food and groundskeepers who cleaned our stairwells? It may seem callous to say, but they become fixtures too; part of the school that does not grow or leave with us, but is there to stay (or so we feel). We interact and when it’s time we say goodbye. They are a part of our remembered landscape, as permanent in our recollections as carved stones.

So the loss of a figure—the irreversible loss—cuts deep. It is the loss of a person, but much more than that; it is the loss of the sacredness of the place. It is the loss of potential, and the loss of a past we thought could not change. It is the loss of the greeting we expected upon our return. It is the loss of a brilliance that made our time (and that of others) glow.

Dean Leslie Woodard was many things to many people: teacher, friend, mentor, role model, disciplinarian, advisor, cheerleader, instructor. And those people have a great deal more to say about her than I ever could. But for the selfish sake of wanting to remember her a little better, and wanting to understand a little more fully the role she played in my Yale, in my memory, I have a few things I want to set down for me, for her, for anyone.

I.

First days of freshman year. Fall semester registration. We’re called into the dining hall, 90 giddy kids, to sign our registration cards and make ourselves officially known as students. Dean Woodard introduces herself and proceeds to deliver a pep talk. She’s lithe and ageless, her voice surprisingly loud and—when she wants it to be—high-pitched. Every word is long, drawn out, inflected. I wish, now, that I had a transcript of what she said because it was much wiser than I realized then, of course. But the gist—at that meeting and at the start of every semester to come—was always the same: Welcome. Breathe deep. “Frolic.” Make friends. Enjoy this place as best you can. That first freshman speech gave us a license to be excited about being there. It gave us the freedom to have fun.

II.

Crying. It’s dumb, but there I am, crying, in her office. It’s nearing the end of freshman year and this is the first time I’ve been to see her for anything other than a perfunctory, upbeat schedule signing. It’s also the first time I’ve cried all year. One more first: for the first time in my life, I’m failing a class. (It would also be the last time.) This isn’t supposed to happen to me, I think. I met with the professor, I’ve had meetings with the TA. I’m trying, really truly trying. But I’m still failing. I have barely sat down in the chair across for her desk when I break down. “Pull yourself together,” she says. “You don’t need to cry.” She’s tough, Dean Woodard, and when I ask her what to do—which means, please tell me what to do, tell me how to fix this mess I’m somehow in—she is all business: withdraw from the class. Take summer session courses to get the required credits. When I complain that I already have summer plans, she doesn’t waver. If I can’t pass the class, then let’s move on to Plan B. There is no miracle solution.

I leave her office angry, frustrated. I’m used to advisors helping me out, not telling me there isn’t any help to be had. I don’t want to drop the class. I don’t want to change my summer plans.

So I decide against her advice. Instead, I decide that failing is not an option. I work harder, and ultimately I pass the class.

III.

First week of classes, spring semester, senior year—and I have the flu. I can already taste the bittersweet tang of nostalgia when I look around campus; maybe that’s partly why I can’t get out of bed. But I’m also running a fever and too weak to walk to the seminar in which I plan to write my senior essay. The professors want a note from my dean to excuse my absence. No note, no spot in the class, no senior essay. I email Dean Woodard, but she won’t give a note: it’s not a family emergency and I’m not in the hospital. Dean Woodard doesn’t provide excuses for things like being sick. She sticks to the letter of the rulebook, which says you suck it up. I’m panicking.

In Dean’s office, sitting in that same chair across her desk, I once again fall into self-pitying tears. Again: “You don’t need to cry.” She instructs me to tell the professors the truth: that dean’s excuses aren’t allowed for illness, but that they can call or email her directly if needed. Again, I leave frustrated, still panicking.

A few hours later, everything is smoothed over. The professors are fine with it. When I pass the message on to Dean Woodard, she shoots back an mail: “See. No tears needed! Feel better!”

IV.

Graduation weekend. I don’t want to leave. My plans are vague. The arrival of my family is overwhelming. Every thing I pack up is another goodbye to a life I’m not ready to give up. In the Calhoun courtyard, we graduating students sit in the undiluted sun surrounded by dressed-up family and friends, our navy robes sticky against sweaty skin. Best friends to my right, my left, in front and behind. Blue skies above. Green grass below. Red brick all around.

Dean Woodard’s speech is perfect. I wonder a little, as she talks, how it’s possible for her to get it so completely. She has always told us to “frolic” (her trademark word), to have fun. Now she’s telling us to be bold people, unafraid of letting go of this place and finding something new beyond. Her voice carries.

“But whether you are intimidated or joyous,” she says of the way we will choose to present ourselves post-Yale, “this moment of introduction represents an opportunity for all of you to keep what you want of your identity and shed what you do not. It is a time of tremendous power but perhaps that’s the scariest thing of all.”

“Marianne Williamson said and was subsequently quoted by Nelson Mandela, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, famous?’ Who are you not to be? Playing it small does not serve the world. For as we are liberated from our own fear, so our presence liberates others.

“Powerful words, yes. But so very important, for this is your opportunity to introduce yourselves to the world entirely on your own terms, to be really, truly powerful, and to employ your presence for the empowerment others. So use the breadth of knowledge – both moral and intellectual — you have received at Yale and at Calhoun because by its virtue you are much better equipped than most and do not spend your energy trying to slip through life unnoticed. Let your mistakes be bold, your apologies sincere, remember that you and you alone are responsible for who you are and what you do.  Resist the urge to tiptoe through the world. I’m not suggesting you wear only your heaviest shoes, your spikiest stilettos. Journey through life in comfortable shoes that allow you to walk when you wish, run when you wish. And when it is warm and lovely, go barefoot, feel the cool grass beneath the soles of your feet, take long, confident strides, and never ever forget to frolic!”

And when she reads out each of our names in her signature baseball-announcer voice, drawing out each syllable with an extra flourish, and hands over our diplomas and shakes our hands and sends us off, it’s hard not to think: here’s a woman of incredible confidence, of humor, of power.

V.

Right after graduation, I check my inbox to find an email from her, apologizing for mispronouncing my name during the diploma ceremony. I respond to tell her not to worry, and also to request a copy of her speech. She sends it back as an attachment almost immediately. “I hope you enjoy it!” she wrote. And: “I wish you all the best for the future! Keep in touch!!!”

I’m not sure if I ever did say goodbye in person. But I want to think that’s OK, in the end.

When I arrived at Yale, I thought Dean Woodard was supposed to be something of a safeguard: the person to protect me from my mistakes, to build me up when I was low, to help me navigate the rougher terrain of college. I had always, after all, gone to small schools.

But Dean saw it differently. We were to succeed on our own terms—not because of her assistance. When crises struck, her approach was tough but unerringly realistic. She didn’t fix things; she simply directed us toward the way we could fix them ourselves. It’s hard to overestimate how important that kind of an approach was for someone like me, who had always been privileged with wonderful oversight, parents and teachers and coaches who ensured that failure was not an option.

So when failure was an option, Dean made it clear that it was something I was to face myself. As with all things in life, I had a choice: to pick myself up and figure it out; or to let despondency, self-pity, or self-limitations take me down. It was the same thing whenever I went to her to look over my classes or discuss my extracurriculars. She never told me to do one thing over another. Instead, she questioned my decisions, and made me justify them. And as long as I could do that—as long as it was clear that I had a reason, that I had confidence, and that I was going to take responsibility for whatever I got myself into—she was happy to sign off on my plans. So I learned to do just that.

I often think that more than anything, my four years at Yale taught me humility. I saw what it was to be incapable of doing it all, to be less than the best, and to be overshadowed by peers who were willing to work harder, study longer, focus more.

But with the little bit of time and distance the past few months have afforded me, I’ve realized that Yale also taught me how to make choices for myself, and how to commit to a path of action. Or: how to have the confidence to direct my future, rather than let it simply happen. A great deal of that confidence came from figuring out that I could decide that—for instance—failure was not an option. It was something I built slowly throughout my time in college, and carry with me now. That self-knowledge came to me first from Dean, who was almost intimidating in her own self-assurance.

She forced me to act for myself.

I don’t know if there is a more meaningful lesson anyone can teach you. For that, I thank her, and am deeply grateful for the brief time I spent as one of her students. And for that, I am profoundly saddened by her death. Calhoun—Yale—has lost one of its finest instructors; not just in the classroom, but especially in the rather important life lessons of self-confidence, responsibility, and resilience.

I am sure that others who were better acquainted with her as a professor and as a friend will write of her academic brilliance, her quirky humor, and her vibrant spirit. These 2000-odd words on this blog in my tiny, nearly invisible corner of the Internet are but a small, self-reflective tribute. Still, all memories have value, I think, and the ones I have of her are strong.

When I go back to Yale next month, it will be different. Calhoun—my home at Yale—will not feel quite the same. I’ll know why. No buildings will have changed; the red brick walls and stone façades will be there, timeless as ever. The difference will be in the spirit of the place. The warmth of my college memories comes not from the cold stone halls of the libraries, but from the people whose words and actions shaped that home.

“…What makes your goodbyes so difficult,” Dean said in that same commencement speech, “is that this place and the people beside you and around you now possess for you the quality of punctum, they have pierced you, they are a part of you and you cannot, will not forget them, for one can never lose that which pierces be it a place, an ethos, or a person.”

Thank you, Dean Woodard, for all that you did and were and continue to do, even—especially—after you are gone.

(If you would like to read Dean Leslie Woodard’s full commencement speech for the Calhoun College Class of 2013, please click here.)

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One month later; or, seeking nirvana

“…So you’re going to Yale. I used to want to go to Yale myself, once. Only I had to go where I could. I guess there is a time in the life of every young American of the class that wants to go to college or accepts the inevitability of education, when he wants to go to Yale or Harvard. Maybe that’s the value of Yale and Harvard to our American life: a kind of illusion of an intellectual nirvana that makes the ones that can’t go there work like hell where they do go, so as not to show up so poorly alongside of the ones that can go there. Still, ninety out of a hundred Yale and Harvard turn out but are reasonably bearable to live with, if they ain’t anything else. And that’s something to be said for any manufactory, I guess. But I’d like to have gone there…'”

—Faulkner, Mosquitoes

I went there.

When I graduated a month ago, everything happened at once: dark-blue gowns and cardboard packing boxes and parents. At night, there were clay pipes that we smoked and smashed on forbidden rooftops and lumps in the throat that wouldn’t go away, even when we sang and laughed and danced. Most people left in a rush—on to the next. I lingered, because I purposefully have no “next”, not right now.

In Mosquitoes, Faulkner’s character Fairchild—a talented novelist with an inferiority complex springing from his incomplete education—happens into a conversation with a young well-to-do man, Josh, who’s headed to Yale. Josh doesn’t much care where he goes; it’s not as though there were a choice, or as though anything different could have happened to him (and besides, he’s mainly interested in getting into a senior society). Fairchild only wishes had had the chance to go to Yale, even if the college is ultimately, as he says, “a kind of illusion of an intellectual nirvana.” It’s a nice snapshot of two men, separated by the birthright of class and money and reasonable expectations, yet both buying into the splendid myth of academia. Mosquitoes was first published in 1927, but Fairchild’s comment resonates with just as much bite and relevance today as ever.

No matter. The illusion—the myth—worked all its glory on me. And I know from experience that my friends were much better than “reasonably bearable” to live with. Luck shipped us all off to New Haven, and luck brought to us great people there who we learned from and grew to know.

But that was all a month ago. I’m home now, on the other, brighter coast. My friends and acquaintances are scattered far off in other cities, cultures, lives. The education from here on out is one we make, not one we take. The illusion of nirvana has ended; the quest for the real thing now begins.