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I think of Yale and I remember reading—and two great mistakes. I read in chairs (green leather in Linonia & Brothers, red at my fraternity); in tower windows, half in love with Keats; in Grove Street Cemetery, the sun of late May tracing my spine.
Learning began once I looked up from my book.
Then I saw Silliman’s copper beech and Davenport’s wisteria, and understood Rossetti for the very first time.
I watched as Indian women played with their babies on Cross Campus—peahens in saris, shaming us Rhode Island Reds.
And one afternoon, while sunning on top of Payne Whitney, I looked up to see an oaken, hairy man—surely a grad student—wink.
I fled, leaving my clothes to rot in my locker.
That was the spring of 1968.
Though not too much into politics, I had grasped that Thou Shalt Not Kill, so two days later I joined a peace march down at the train station.
It was drizzling, but we stuck to it, round and round as the paint on our “Don’t Go” posters ran in streaks.
Ten minutes into the demonstration, a figure in gray sweats drew up beside me. He turned, smiled, and inside his hood I saw the man from the gym. Not even peace was safe from life.
Again I fled.
You see, for all my reading, I hadn’t learned a thing about homosexuality.
Well, nothing important, nothing true.
An introductory psychology class had suggested that homosexuality is proof of arrested development: not exactly evil but surely ignoble, like bed-wetting.
Reading Chaucer we'd giggled over the Pardoner, never doubting that effeminacy equals male homosexuality. Nor did we ask why Ernest Hemingway had to be so manly, not to say mannish.
So when in Browning’s May and Death, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and just about everything by Hawthorne I caught an echo, a certain tenderness, I thought it was just me.
Now 28 years later, I forgive my instructors for skirting this important issue. They were afraid—and who hasn’t been?
But because I’d been taught no better, I tried to kill myself rather than sink into “depravity.” I was a senior, 20 years old.
That was my first big mistake.
If only I had waited! A few months later, in 1969, the American gay rights movement would really get cooking. And soon the American Psychiatric Association would delete homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders.
But I’d jumped the gun, and it was suggested that I drop out to recuperate.
When I returned to Yale, in September 1969, I was a different man. Even a different student.
As a freshman I’d been criticized for “having a colloquial mind.” A fair assessment, it caused me to draw back when writing essays for English or history.
Now, in my second senior year, I withheld nothing. Why should I? Why return to life if only to mew?
For three years, with a great deal of effort, I’d plodded toward merely gentlemanly grades. Now I was pulling down honors, easily.
Granted, I’d chosen John Skelton as the subject of my senior essay. With Bobby Seale on trial downtown and tear gas blowing through the Old Campus, I must have struck my examiners as either wonderfully dedicated or totally out of it—who else would devote his senior spring, and such a spring, to an intensive examination of Henry VIII’s tutor?
I knew Skelton inside and out, but that’s not why I aced the orals. At last I’d grown up: That’s why I did so well.
My first big mistake was believing all that nonsense about homosexuality, that rot about disease and wicked intention. My second mistake is actually much more embarrassing:
Don’t ask me where, but somehow I’d picked up the notion that once I graduated, I’d never read again—that life would be too busy for Keats. No wonder I dreaded graduation.
But what did I know? I was just a boy.
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