What I Most Regret About My Time at Yale

I was 15 and the man I looked up to, a supermarket bagboy who barely spoke English, was dead. They say poverty builds character, and I believe it. My father died when I was in high school, leaving me to be the "man of the family," and thus the one that needed to set the "right" example for my three younger brothers.

My parenting style consisted of imitating what I had learned from my father: working and keeping my mouth shut. Shortly after my father died, our biggest fear was that we would get evicted from our apartment, and there were days when I woke up certain that it was my last day of school, the last day before adulthood would force me to work to pay the rent. There were days when I felt so defeated that the only thing that dragged me to my all-boys school was the fact that there I had "father" figures who would encourage me and look after me. 

Mr. Rodriguez was my Health Class teacher the year my father died, and he was by far the funniest person I knew. When I first sat in his class, I could not believe that a bald, brown man who looked and sounded like Big Gay Al from South Park could actually exist. One of the students in the class shouted "Big Gay Al" at some point during the semester when Rodriguez turned his back to write on the chalkboard. He took it in stride and responded to the black kid: "I'm nothing like Big Gay Al, I don't find black guys attractive." The whole class erupted in laughter.

He was also the track coach, and encouraged me to find peace through exercise and teamwork. For a 15-year-old with unfiltered access to cable, with no one to force me to come home at a certain hour, and living in a place where propriety meant not punching your neighbor, it really took a person who could make fun of anything to cheer me out of my dark slumber. When I was in Mr. Rodiguez' class or training out in the field, I didn't feel like an orphan living in zip code 10452, one of the poorest in the United States, I felt like I could accomplish anything, and that despite death and misery all around me, it was possible to smile and be happy.

I took that attitude to Yale University, and when my 17-year-old self got there I was still laughing histerically at the politically incorrect observations which allowed us back in the Bronx to overlook our reality. My first month at Yale, when everything was bright and new, I made my way to Ezra Stiles dining hall with my suitemates for a weekend brunch. 

They were out of spoons that day, but I wanted cereal, so I decided to eat it with a fork. The dean of Ezra Stiles decided to sit down with us that day, uninvited. One of my suitemates asked me why I was eating cereal with a fork, and I jokingly replied in a Russian accent: "In my country, we are so poor, we eat cereal with fork to save milk."

My suitemates laughed, and Dean Wood grabbed her tray, stood up without a word, showed me her back and walked away. For the next four years at Yale, she never sat at a table if I was there, and wouldn't acknowledge me in a group. 

I turned 18 that month and didn't make much of it -- I thought it was a funny story -- but the truth is that I was impressionable, and began to do to others what Dean Wood had done to me. 

When, for April Fool's Alyssa played a prank on me which I found offensive because I felt that she had put my poverty on display, my solution was to "get up and walk away." I never addressed or sat with Alyssa again during my remaining years at Yale. 

When, the week before sophomore year my girlfriend Xanom raised her voice at me on the train, my solution was to "walk away." She would later send me an e-mail asking me to talk about our love and for me to return a box that was still in my dorm room. When I saw her again, after weeks of not speaking, I simply put the box next to her and walked back to my dorm room. 

Even after I graduated and moved for work to Korea, I continued doing to women what Dean Wood had done to me. When my girlfirend's friend got drunk and threw a few punches at me, I simply waked away and never acknowledged her again. When my ex-girlfriend came crying to me asking to "talk it out," I simply walked out of the bar. On my last day in Korea, when my ex-girlfriend came to say goodbye and talk about why the relationship hadn't worked out, I simply walked away, and she walked out of the bar crying, for me never to see her again. 

Last year over the summer, Rodriguez died and was again a lot on my mind. Shortly thereafter I was invited to an event by some posh people and I made the mistake of horsing around and joking like Mr. Rodriguez -- the man who was a father-figure to me -- and as a consequence I was later uninvited from attending another event by a person who was present and took offense to one of my jokes. My solution hasn't been to talk it out with any of these people. I learned better at Yale, the best thing is to walk away and pretend like they don't exist.

The truth is, I'm glad Dean Wood walked away after I made that joke. It was in extremely poor taste of me to mock my own poverty and to appropriate the accent of a traditionally-marginalized group in the US. My only regret is that I didn't learn my lesson about joking around white women right then and there.

During my senior year, the head of the Latin American Studies department, Professor Canuto -- who used to teach extremely difficult classes, I mean the classes were so difficult that he would spend an entire class talking about how difficult his classes were and would summarize a lesson by talking about how difficult it was to talk about the difficulties of the difficulties of Central American archaeology -- told me that by the time I was 28, I would regret not making more of an effort at Yale.

Apparently my GPA was only a 3.2 out of 4, which showed lack of effort on my depressed, immigrant, orphan ass who most semesters couldn't even afford the assigned books until I worked for them at the library, or managed to find a copy.  Hell, I usually took a class simply because it meant not having to buy books I couldn't afford, and skipped a lot of reading because I was too embarrassed to borrow a book from my peers, who I can assure you were not the most sharing, generous people. In fact, I would rather starve to death today than call anyone from Yale to ask for a meal.

I'm 28 now, and I've have a chance to reflect on what I most regret about my time at Yale, and about what the head of the Latin American Studies department told me:

Dear Mr. Canuto,

I regret smiling, laughing, and being myself. I regret not being more conscious of class differences. I regret talking to white people who today don't have a single working-class, brown friend. In fact, I regret having gone there, of losing what made me able to relate to my Dominican, working-class peers. I regret not being able to laugh today at stuff that my brothers think is hilarious but only fills me with rage because I find it offensive. I regret not telling you to your face how offensive it was to ask me in front of a class if I believed in aliens. I regret not telling you how offensive it was of you to spend a class seeding doubt into me about my ability to handle your crappy archaeology class.

If I could turn back the hands of time, my 17-year-old rustic, working-class, offensive ass would have bought a one-way plane ticket to the Dominican Republic, and it would have saved me the last decade of embarrassing myself by living around a group of vile neo-colonialist pigs who demand nothing but assimilation into a culture where depression, hatred of others, mass shootings, and hypocrisy are its most defining features.