Tag Archives: college

Limestone In The Rain

Over the weekend, my family gathered for my second son Jared’s college graduation at Indiana University, Bloomington. We arrived in a storm and our first day was drenched. I had visited  before, but only in the sunshine. This time, we all grabbed our coats, opened our umbrellas and walked the paths of Jared’s college experience through mist, puddles and rain.

The word college often evokes images of gargantuan brick buildings surrounding lush quadrangles. A smattering of statues enhances the image, helped along by scattered gargoyles, arches, plaques, columns — and of course more brick. But IU, Bloomington campus, has a character all its own: it was built from limestone.

Limestone is a living entity, a dynamic presence. Of course, it doesn’t have a heartbeat — but actually it does. In past visits, I touched the limestone in the sun, felt its warmth, shielded my eyes from its too-bright sparkle. This weekend, the limestone was cool to the touch, earthy browns and whites, glistening gently. Each block is one color and one hundred colors. Limestone and light have an ongoing relationship which, like all relationships, is layered and complex, comforting in its solidity and full of surprises.

Between graduation events, my family walked through campus, traveling Jared’s four-year journey. His first dorm. The library. His one foray into a philosophy course. The buildings are different shapes and sizes, with varying exterior textures. Some have a smooth surface, some rough. Some have layers of rock on rock, a haphazard impression, stunningly artistic. Some have geometric designs, astonishing in their precision. Each has its own personality.

Jared graduated from Kelley School of Business, a grand, imposing structure. I thought of the countless times my son had entered this building and I stopped, looking up. I expected to feel intimidated, but instead the limestone seemed to reach out. And somehow, in that moment, I understood the curious power and the odd magic of this campus. Kelley offers a palpable invitation to explore and discover, both within the parameters of the business school and beyond — supply chain, a Gregorian chant, advanced combinatorics, accounting, a Maya Angelou poem. Limestone radiates a world of possibility.

Congratulations to the IU Bloomington class of 2017, and especially to Jared. Going forward, may your path offer one color and one hundred colors. May your journey include solidity, surprise, possibility. May you explore and discover.

May you always become, throughout your forever.

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LGBT Pride Month: Yale Has Come A Long Way

A few weeks into my first semester at Yale, I was walking to the Silliman dining hall, when I ran into a group of freshmen on their way to Commons. I was quiet by nature, and always preferred small to large. Everything about Commons felt too big and too loud. But I hadn’t yet found my social footing, so I was pleased when my classmates asked me to join them.

The day was sunny and warm, perfect New Haven post-summer-pre-winter weather. We all wore jeans and T-shirts, backpacks slung over our shoulders, comfortable in the light breeze. We were near the entrance to Commons, when I heard a student raise his voice: “Nobody wants you here!”

I turned and saw a folding table with three young women. Their petition was short and simple, asking people to support gay and lesbian students. The young man who yelled was surrounded, a pack of five men, threatening and condescending. The three women were clearly upset, but stood their ground.

I barely registered my lunch group’s calling for me to “come on” and “hurry up”. Instead, I slowly walked back to the table. Quietly, I signed the petition. The women thanked me politely, although their eyes were on the pack, as were mine. I can still picture those boys – all in polo shirts, trim and fit, Gentlemen’s Quarterly handsome. I met each of their eyes, and they stared back. A few grinned brazenly; one looked me over and licked his lips. I was unable to speak.

In my high school, gay boys were constantly targeted, verbally and physically. But violence was common, because my high school’s population included several gangs, always ready to erupt. Yes, the gay boys were bullied terribly. But most of the violence at school was between rival gangs. Surrounded by the fireworks of gang warfare, I failed to identify the magnitude of homophobia as a source. Even more naively, I never expected to find bigotry in college.

I don’t remember much about that lunch, except the stares from the group. When I finally found my voice and asked what was wrong, the bravest of the bunch spoke up: “Are you gay?” I shook my head and they exchanged baffled glances. The girl to my right put down her glass of milk. “Then why did you sign the petition?”

I walked to my next class slowly, knowing I had done something terribly wrong. It took me weeks to figure out that I should have returned to that folding table, and stood with those three women. I should have found my voice, spoken up, said that if “Nobody wanted them here”, then I was glad to be “Nobody”.

Over time, I found my group of friends at Yale. I stopped being frightened of polo shirts. I began to hit my academic stride, and my confidence grew. I ate at Commons, and felt comfortable. I learned to handle big and loud. By the end of my first year, I had fallen head over heels in love with Yale. But I was also disturbingly aware that during my bright college years, the people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum often had a tough time, navigating an environment that pulsed with overt and covert hostility.

I’m told that Yale has grown, changed and evolved into a safe and supportive environment for people of any sexuality and sexual identity. Now, when I look over the curriculum for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, I’m impressed. Back in my time at college, I was involved in Student-to-Student Counseling; now I read about Walden Peer Counseling, Pathways Peer Counseling, Queer Peers at Yale – and I feel a surge of pride for my alma mater. I’ll forgive Yale for needing time to evolve, and I’ll ask those 3 women at that folding table to forgive me for my silence, for walking away on that day back in 1976. I, too, needed time to evolve.

Yale has come a long way.

Happy LGBT Pride Month.


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Light, Truth and Peter Rabbit

Several years ago, I stood at my college reunion, in the Timothy Dwight courtyard, under a gigantic tent shielding us from the pounding rain. A friend asked how I’d describe my quintessential experience as an undergrad. Intense adolescent relationships that evolved into lifelong friendships? An education founded on insatiable curiosity? Professors whose lectures moved me to tears? All true. But for me, more than any one of those, Beinecke Rare Book Library captured the essence of my four years at Yale.

I wandered into Beinecke in my rookie year, unhinged by my first set of midterms, looking for a quiet place to regroup. The cold was sharp for a Californian, and I hurried along Wall Street, avoiding the more populated Elm. I glanced to the right, and found myself facing an odd structure, strangely beautiful. I had passed by several times, but this time I stopped.

To this day, I’ve never seen anything as compelling as Beinecke. The walls are white marble squares – thick, strong, bizarrely translucent. The level of humidity, the placement of the sun, the density of the clouds all guide the light through the marble, a canvas always quivering, shifting, alive. Grays, browns and whites interweave with hints of yellows and pinks, a spectrum simultaneously limited and infinite. Shapes created by the light chase each other through the marble blocks, changing as a breeze repositions a cloud, a ray of sun gives way to a shadow – designs born of the unpredictable.

The center of the library is a gigantic pillar, encased in clear glass, holding several soaring levels of rare books and manuscripts. Hundreds of thousands of works. Written history. Yours, mine, ours. Inspiring, riveting, oddly comforting.

The surrounding area, open to the public, holds several glass cases, each with a rare book or manuscript. On that reunion weekend, I was greeted by two Gutenberg Bibles. I then moved on to Beatrix Potter, Alice In Wonderland, and maps of the “100 Aker Wood” from The World Of Pooh. I admired manuscripts from San Francisco and Marseilles, and smiled in surprise at a case of pages covered in startlingly bright silk, crimson and royal blue.

This weird and wonderful place captures my college experience – a time of compatible juxtapositions. Clunky blocks of impenetrable rock with light effortlessly flowing through. A Gutenberg Bible companionably next to Peter Rabbit. Serious and playful. Respectful and lighthearted. Reverent and fun. Beinecke makes no sense whatsoever, and somehow reinstates meaning and truth.

Beinecke and I met decades ago at a personal low point. Crushed and demoralized, I wondered if my career at Yale would end with those first exams. But it didn’t. I figured out how to take a test. I discovered I enjoyed writing papers. I stopped worrying that I was the most pathetic specimen ever to be admitted. I learned and struggled and learned more. Over time, I forgot to be afraid when I struggled. I had fun. I returned to Beinecke possibly thirty times during those four years, through ups and downs, calms and storms, disappointments and triumphs.

I don’t remember the exhibit on display when I first entered. I don’t remember the precise palette of light on Beinecke’s walls that day. I do remember my amazement. Even more, I remember that as I journeyed around the second floor, my curiosity returned and with it, confidence followed by perspective. Yale and I were a new relationship. We were off to a rocky start, but we had four years to work it out.

And we did.


Filed under Beinecke, college, library, Rare books, reunion, Yale

Impersonating A Foster Child

Many years ago, I entered my first year at Yale University, secretly afraid that my admission was a blight on the noble tradition of this fine institution. I remember walking to class and counting the stone gargoyles. I remember the three upperclassmen at my lunch table, who suddenly switched their conversation from English to Latin. But no imposing architectural wonder, no tribute to Virgil in a dead language, intimidated me more than “Colin Snowden” (not his real name).

If memory serves me well, Colin was featured in the “Welcome Letter” to my incoming class, and was described as a “young Horatio Alger”. He had tragically lost his parents in a car accident at age thirteen, but through a combination of brain-power and sheer grit, founded a multi-million dollar business. His Yale interview was blow-out impressive, a waif-turned-tycoon in a pin-stripe suit, flashing a watch that cost enough to buy a reasonably sized island. Before my first year even began, Colin Snowden was The Class Hero.

Colin was home-less, parent-less, family-less…and as it turned out, conscience-less. The entire story was a hoax. But nobody knew – not the college dean, not the admissions committee, not his classmates, not his girlfriend. The deception might have lasted longer, but Yale has a rigorous academic curriculum, and this particular “young Horatio Alger” didn’t care for hard work. When we all returned after the holiday break, Colin had disappeared.

At the time, most students found the situation hilarious — an unusually generous contribution to the gossip circuit, plus an in-your-face-rude-hand-gesture to the powers that be. It would be years before we realized that this was fraud, and not the least bit funny. He was so comfortable lying, so fluid in his identity, that his presentation was pathologically seamless.

Many people criticized the admissions committee for never checking up on his story, but I disagreed. Yes, Yale made a mistake, but our society is (understandably) not prepared for raw, primal sociopathy. I was angry at the deception, not at the admissions committee. More than that, I was chilled at Colin’s lack of conscience, and sympathetic toward the girlfriend who I was told suffered terribly in the aftermath.

Now, decades later, my perspective has turned in a new direction. Colin knew he wouldn’t be admitted to Yale on his true merits. So he faked a transcript and created an identity. He took on a curious role. He dressed himself up, like an extended Halloween costume, as a boy who should have been in foster care.

Colin combined a stereotypic portrayal of a foster child with a stereotypic portrayal of a rags-to-riches hero. He was a comic book figure, come to life, welcomed without question. Nobody stepped back, paused, and asked the obvious. Where’s the individual in this stereotype? With such a traumatic past, why doesn’t he need emotional support? According to his story, he bounced back instantaneously from losing his parents, and became an instantaneous entrepreneurial success (at age thirteen). Nobody said, “Wait a moment. Too much instantaneous. This doesn’t make sense.” The combination of his near-miss-foster-child status and his off-the-charts-rich status stopped everybody in their tracks. People accepted Colin as a stereotype, and missed that he could not possibly have been a real individual.

What leads children and adolescents to foster care? An environment at home that doesn’t allow healthy growth — abuse and neglect — a tragedy that takes away a home. These are not stereotypes, but harsh realities. The children involved are unique folks, individuals just like the rest of us, but facing particularly difficult circumstances.

Within a few short months, “Colin Snowden” found that pretending to be an almost-foster-child was too much work. If it’s too much work to impersonate a young man who merits foster care, then imagine how much work it takes to go through the reality. If Colin had a conscience, he’d stand up now, decades later, and apologize to the entire foster care community, and to each individual within it, for his astounding lack of respect. The apology to Yale, while merited, would be extremely secondary.

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A Carleton Sunset

My oldest son just graduated from Carleton, a small liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. When we left for our long weekend in the Midwest, I did expect to feel joy and pride, but I didn’t expect those four days to shift my world.

During his years at Carleton, Anschel taught swing dance. As we walked through campus, another student stopped to thank my son for bringing dance into his life. Obviously, Anschel had become a student in the Carleton community; but he also had become a valued teacher. Through the weekend, a key feature of this college revealed itself: students are encouraged to become active catalysts for education. This approach to learning is a Carleton tradition, as deeply engrained as The Alma Mater.

The graduation ceremony was stunning, and the program included two student speakers. One began with a quote from Dr. Seuss. She talked about Carleton’s commitment to experimenting and discovering, through allowing its students to fall and instilling the confidence needed to get back up.

The second speaker honored a classmate who died in a car accident during their freshman year. He described his classmate’s openness about living with Asperger’s Syndrome, and how his lost friend’s honesty had changed the lives of others.

Both speakers shared their thoughts with eloquence and humor, with warmth and intelligence, with an absolute lack of pretentiousness. At this small, shining college, the students learned to learn, learned to teach, learned to remain open to new ideas. As I listened to the words of these young minds, I kept thinking that Carleton’s president and professors must have been powerful role models to create such an enriched and enriching environment.

On our final evening, Anschel showed our family The Arboretum. A prairie sunset is like none other. From steely gray with darker gray designs like enormous birds’ wings, to cottony patches of orange, to a bronze glow so bright I shielded my eyes, to gentle pink streaked with not-quite-purple — the sky held the entire palette. I stopped and looked up, taking in the canopy of color that motivated pioneers to survive storms, illness, fires – to build towns, schools, houses of worship.

Anschel will always view Carleton as one of his homes. Going forward, he will carry his joy in bringing dance to others, the wisdom of a classmate lost before his time, the words of Dr. Seuss, and prairie sunsets.

Thanks to the generosity of spirit within this extraordinary community, I’ll carry those things with me as well.

Congratulations to my oldest son, and to the Carleton class of 2014.

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