"Thank you, sir! May I have another!?"™, Day 04: The Doormat of the Ivy League

This is Day 4 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in a classic film of my generation, Animal House.

autumn at cornell

I like to describe my pre-college academic trajectory as an eight-year rocket to the moon...followed by four years of slumming with a bong in my hand and a thumb up my ass.

Well, okay, the bong was sometimes a bottle of Boone's Farm's finest (Tickle Pink, natch) and maybe my thumb was only lodged up there for a total of two and a half years.

No matter the vehicle: the damage to my GPA was done, and with it, my admissions prospects. One does not write one's own ticket with a B+ average, no matter how many forensics awards one has tucked away next to the bong.

It shouldn't have mattered; my grades were more than good enough to get me into any number of fine schools, but somehow, I'd got it in my head that I was supposed to go to Yale. Where, I've no idea: I do have a vague recollection of one of the child characters in Suzuki Beane, one of my favorite books as a five-year-old, sporting a Yale sweatshirt well before I knew the meaning of irony or the existence of the Ivy League, so perhaps that did it. It wasn't my family, though, that much I know. Mom basically got an M-r-s at a small, Catholic women's college, and from all reports, Dad's biggest contribution to his alma mater was firmly establishing it as one of the country's premier party schools.

So I applied to Yale. And to Colorado, as my safety school (hey! I'd be a party legacy!). And, for no reason other than it popped out at me while I was paging through the ginormous college directory Mom had foisted on me, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Since I'd done it backwards, the applying before the visits, there was really no reason to check out any of my putative "choices." I'd get in or I wouldn't, and really, when it came to Yale, what were my chances? But Dad and I made an East coast trip that spring, swinging through New Haven and Ithaca to check out the scene and interview with some administrative types.

May I say straight out that Yale was awful? Or perhaps, beyond awful? Not as an institution, we all know it's good like that. But the setting it's stuck in is hideous, and the venerable stone halls (at least, of the dorms I checked out) reeked of hundred-year-old (and fresher) piss. I knew I'd have to suck it up to make it four years there without falling into a severe depression. And yet, I was willing. Beyond willing, I was dying to go. To prove myself, although to what or whom I don't know. That's me, all right: always willing to forgo comfort and personal happiness in the vain hope of impressing some imaginary, future other.

I did not, as you doubtless figured out, get the opportunity. Yale didn't want me, and even if down deep I didn't want it either, if I knew that my stay there was destined to suck with the force of a thousand sucking things, I wanted it to want me anyway. I would have gone. I am that much of a jerk.

Instead, I went to Cornell, which did want me, or at least, didn't not want me enough to override a word from one of Dad's friends, a cherished alum. (Come on, even the doormat of the Ivy League can score far better than the likes of moi.) And went on to experience four of the greatest, weirdest, hardest, most productive learning years of my life.

So here's the dirty little truth to the whole story: from the moment I set eyes on those hills far above Cayuga's waters that spring of 1979, I wanted to go. Even with the freak foot-and-a-half of snow that greeted us on April Fool's Day, that kept all but the ugliest and most intrepid nerds inside, even with no more reason than that it had randomly popped up in a book of hundreds of schools. I fell madly in love with Cornell at first sight. It felt like everything I'd been waiting for; it felt like home.

And I was ready for forgo home for some pee-smelling, fancy-pants place that was completely wrong for me. I didn't know what my innermost voice was, much less have the sense to follow it. (It would be another 20-odd years before I'd start learning that.)

Thank you, Yale, for my Dear Jane letter. Thank you for doing what I was literally too stupid to do: the right thing.

For both of us...


Image by Blupper via Flickr
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