Harvard and Yale loomed large in our family consciousness when I was a child. My father was a Yale man, and my mother grew up in Cambridge, practically on Harvard’s campus. Her family took in Harvard students as boarders on a regular basis, and several of her family members attended Harvard. One year when I was quite young, there was a big hubbub in my home over the annual Harvard-Yale game. Football, I suppose. My father was encouraging us to take sides. I picked Yale because, as I explained, “it’s easier to spell.” Everyone laughed, and this story became part of the family repertoire. So early on I felt allied with Yale, and had a vague feeling I was meant to go to college there.
But then my brother, just two years older, went to Yale. I had spent my entire childhood following him and my brilliant sisters through our public school system, and having teachers compare me to them. There was no way I was going to go to the same college as he did. I don’t remember minding. I visited him at Yale a few times and didn’t think it was for me. Too Ivy.
My sister had gone through Harvard in three years, using her AP credits to accelerate her graduation. I visited her there. Not for me. I went to a college no one in my family had ever attended, Oberlin, funky but academically acceptable to my parents.
But my Yale dream must have lain dormant, because in my 20’s I became convinced that attending the Yale School of Drama would catapult me to success as a playwright. Or at least, get me on some kind of career track. I applied when I was 23 and was rejected, and attended the Iowa Playwrights Workshop instead. That didn’t go well, and I left after one year. I applied to Yale again at 28, and was accepted.
My year in the Yale MFA program was one of the worst years of my life, rivalled only by sixth grade. Everything I had hoped for from Yale was dashed. Petty, tyrannical teachers and administrators imposed punishments on students for acts of perceived insubordination. These very talented students were treated like children. Most survived and I see many of their faces on TV and in movies, other familiar Yale names in the credits. The details of my own misery there don’t interest me anymore, but it was a terrible, terrible place. Again, I left an MFA program after one year, and rethought my life. I gave up on working in theatre, and began a PhD program, which I finished, and my creative work is now mostly nonfiction prose.
I have a recurring dream that I return to Yale to finish my MFA. It’s not quite a nightmare. Back in New Haven, where I bumped up against idiotic faculty, stepped in a pothole and severely sprained my ankle, moved out of my apartment after a fire, I wonder to myself in the dream, what am I doing here? I have a PhD, I have tenure, I am well over 50, I don’t need this MFA. The talentless playwriting instructor who made my life hell is dead. Do I really think his replacement will bestow me with the Yale laurels that will give me a life in the theatre?
I wake up from this dream relieved that it isn’t true, that I don’t have to go back to Yale.
Turns out my father hated Yale too. When his Yale alumni magazine showed up in the mail, he never opened it, sending it straight to the recycling bin. He was there at the same time as George H.W. Bush, whom he detested, remembering him as one of those entitled Andover SOB’s. My father went through Yale in two and a half years, graduating in the class of 1945W, W for war, and going straight to the Navy. He returned to Yale for graduate school, but only because he could finish quickly and start earning a living to help support his invalid mother. Yale was not the best school for his interest in crystallography, but he felt obliged to get through graduate school as quickly as possible.
My brother enjoyed his time at Yale, completing both his undergrad and MFA degrees there. Coming from public school, he was not part of the private school elite that so permeates the Ivies, and he found his niche in the theatre community. When I told him of my troubles in the MFA program, though, he understood—he had seen similar situations when he was there.
My sister didn’t love Harvard either. Yet these Ivies have such a hold in the American psyche. I used to put my year at Yale on my CV, and it always impressed people.
I have returned to Yale, in person, under happier circumstances. In 2012, I went to the Beinecke Library to see an exhibit of Shakespeare documents, seeing my first First Folio. I met several people there whom I had only known online, fellow renegade Oxfordians. I enjoyed being on Yale’s campus for an entirely different purpose. A few weeks later, I spent three days at Yale attending a seminar with David Blight, renowned historian, who exhibited none of the horrid qualities I had encountered with the Yale professors I’d worked with in my MFA program. He was warm, welcoming, and brilliant. I hoped perhaps that these two positive experiences on the Yale campus would purge me of my recurring dream, but they didn’t.
Last night I had a dream that my daughter decided to transfer to Yale for her sophomore year. She is currently supremely happy at the much more humble, much more down to earth Clark University in Worcester, Mass. We had talked on the phone last night, and I carried her buoyant mood into my dream. She seemed thrilled to be at Yale, and already had a group of friends waiting for her there, somehow. Again, I wondered, why Yale? Why does she want to go here? We went to a dingy dining hall and the food was terrible. Her room was grimy cinderblock and equipped with a stereo system from the 70’s—cassette player and turntable, gathering dust on a high shelf over the bed. I worried about leaving her there, and wondered if there were a way I could get her back to Clark.
Then the dream ended and I remembered how happy she is at Clark. Phew.
When I am awake, Yale has no pull on me, but the idea of Yale, easier to spell and some ticket to success that so held me as a child, still recurs in my dreams. My psyche can’t seem to shake the romance I once felt for Yale. Unless I undergo rigorous psychoanalysis, I will probably have some form of this dream for the rest of my life. It is more amusing than troubling, now, and makes me appreciate the life I have lived instead.