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Yale 62

English at Yale: Full Contact, No Holds Barred
A Chapter from My Memoir

By Lee V. Bakunin

Until I majored in English at Yale during my junior year, I never gave much thought to creative writing, much less poetry, script writing or professional speaking. I was shy, lacked self-confidence and sometimes stuttered or groped to find the right words in conversation.

I never had to write a composition or do a research paper in high school. My first attempt at the SAT College Boards in English was dismal: a shade over 500, average, maybe a bit below. Knowing that I’d be applying to college, I took an SAT preparation course, taped the synonyms and meanings of the recommended vocabulary, and played them during the night, hoping some of it would translate to the test memory part of my brain and raise my score. Hours of listening the day and during sleep at night. My score improved to about a 550, but it was my math aptitude that saved the day and opened the top college doors for me: 780 out of 800, almost a perfect score.

I thought I was a math whiz, which later turned out to be a false assumption as I barely passed Calculus in my freshman year. I’d learned by rote and memorization, so when I saw a similar problem on the SAT test, I mechanically repeated the process. It was the same with English. What I hadn’t learned to do was to think mathematically and apply the concept. It was the same with English and writing – concept, expression and creativity. Not having written compositions or research papers in high school delayed my growth such that I felt I’d be exposed and unable to compete successfully in the workplace.

I made the Dean’s List at the end of my sophomore year solely through many hours studying, memorization and rote, which proved to serve me well at exam time in psychology, classical civilization and archeology, which bolstered my lowest grade in an English Course in Tragedy taught by the eminent Professor Richard Sewall.

However, I still hadn’t learned to write effectively and creatively. As there was no longer a need for Morse code telegraphers and I did not have the speed to become an auctioneer, it was time for reckoning.

What I did could be considered by some as poor folly, like deciding to build a sailboat without knowing how to sail.
I decided to take my weakest area – English – and major in it. Yale had the finest English Department. In my junior year, I would be taking 5 English courses per semester, with only my ROTC military course and one elective.

Writing, writing, writing. Composition, composition, composition. Criticism, Criticism, Criticism. Re-draft, re-write, re-draft, re-write. All the major literary figures: Keats, Johnson, Chaucer, Milton – the Classics. The Iliad, the Odyssey. Going from Paradise Lost into Hell. From my burgers and pizza background, this was like deciding to go to a French restaurant and order paté de frois gras and oysters, then ask a debutante from the elite 100 to a ballet in the afternoon and opera in the evening. Trading jeans and army fatigues for ivy league button-down shirts, grey flannels with matching blue blazer and collegiate tie.

Was I crazy? I guess I was. I even told Professor Sewall of my intention, to witness his reaction. He encouraged me to do it, but of course, he taught tragedy, so I didn’t know whether I might be cited as an example to the new batch of students in the fall.

“The best brownies and chocolate chip cookies on Cyprus!” says Lee

It was the most grueling, difficult year of my life and frankly, not much fun. I wrote at least 25-30 compositions plus other papers per semester and got criticized with no mercy shone. From receiving grades in the high 80s and 90s, my grade average plummeted to barely passing with the 60s and 70s leading to an average of 72. I’d do four or five drafts and re-writes, turn it in and get caustic comments with a grade of 71 or 65 or 69.

I told you before that the Yale English Department was the best and toughest. What I didn’t tell you was they knew how to kick ass like a Marine drill sergeant. At one point, I decided for a paper on Chaucer to submit the first draft -whatever came initially – no re-writes. Guess what? My highest grade for a paper that semester -something like an 82. Made no sense to me, though I decided not to push my luck.

Second spring semester saw no improvement grade-wise from the first fall semester. Grade point average 72 – at the bottom of the class. Senior year in English looked like it would be much of the same, plus having to write a major paper plus take comprehensives… which if I didn’t pass, I would not graduate.

I decided to switch majors rather than risk it. Went back to Political Science where I’d gotten some top grades in sophomore year. Had to go to summer school at Harvard to amass enough credits in Political Science to graduate.
Was it worth it? Oh, yeah. This battling, bruising, bombastic, brutal, boot camp left me with only one thing: I’d learned how to write and express myself. Gomer Pyle and Forest Gump would have been proud of me. I’d been to hell and back several times, but I survived and later would thrive. Without that experience, you fine readers would not have come into my life and I into yours.

The shamans and other spiritual masters say that at some time during the quest for enlightenment, you must face and conquer your fear of the dark and your difficulties, so that you can appreciate the light. I agree and if I was asked whether I’d make the same decision again, I’d do it.

Sometimes in life, I’ve had to take a leap of faith: either I’d learn to fly or fall on the ground. Fall down and get up would be my choice. Tests my inner courage and conviction. More than once. Oh, yeah. But I believe in that Chinese proverb: Fall down seven times, get up eight. And in other parts of my memoir, you will read of other times I fell down… and got up. How about you?

It was that experience which taught me never to quit when I wanted to accomplish something. Of course, sometimes I’d start in one area and then readjust or move in another direction. That pattern still follows me today. Maybe I still haven’t found my true passion. For those of you who have, congratulations. Bravo! For those of you who know what it is and are not there yet, keep on trucking. Keep the dream going, even if it takes you twenty years to become an overnight success. Ask any Nobel Prize winner or successful author and they will tell you of the rejections and failures along the way. I’ve had many and wrote about it in Chapter 5 of a book I self-published The Power of Creative Genius. The chapter: “REJECT THE REJECTION: THE POWER OF FAILURE.” For any of you who are interested, email me at lee@bakuninlegal.com and I’d be happy to email the chapter to you.

 
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1 comment to English at Yale: Full Contact, No Holds Barred

  • Douglas Floyd Russell

    If I ever make it to Cyprus Lee, I’m coming for some of those cookies! Enjoyed your piece. Yes, as a fellow Yale English major, so often I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s line about “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, etc..” And yes, as life proceeds such divergent opportunities keep presenting themselves time and time again.

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