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The senior essay is supposedly a graduation requirement—and to be
literal,
it is. But it’s not due in April. While the rest of the graduating
class scrambles to meet the deadline, a wily few just take it easy. They
know the truth: They have up to five years after graduation to finish
their
projects.
I had heard of people doing this, delinquents who had left Yale with a toy
diploma and a stern warning: Five years or else! These were the legends,
the mythic heroes of every kid who had ever called home in tears,
lamenting
work, deadlines, and the future. But were they really out there?
That’s
when my obsession began.
The first delinquent I cornered was Susan (names have been changed), a
young
professional living in California. She had left Yale in 1999 without a
diploma
and with just enough dignity to make it out West. For her, the senior
essay
had been of secondary importance, an afterthought in her world of
activism,
“event organizing,” and liberalism. She was willing to tell me
everything, even though she had been bedridden for days with a cold.
She claimed that she hadn’t needed a degree to get a job. “I
think I got my job because of the skills I learned in extracurricular
pursuits
… and not because of my academic experiences at Yale.” I
never
found out exactly what she did. I just couldn’t press her. She was
my first contact, a confirmed invalid, and a charming woman. But I could
sense a blackness in her story. I proceeded with caution.
The senior essay had indeed affected her adult life. And though she was
all
laughs and nonchalance when it came to talking about this, I could sense
a desperation in her words: “It makes me stay home on Saturday
nights
… and plunge into isolated depression, staring at the wall, picking
my ear.” I could see Susan in a hospice gown, slobbering over some
coloring book, writing that damn essay. My heart almost went out to
her.
But her anxiety seemed to be self-imposed. She told me that Yale never
contacted
her, that she didn’t have an advisor, and that she could graduate at
her own leisure. She was planning on getting her diploma this year, so
that
a younger friend, in the class of ‘01, wouldn’t be able to
“rub
it in.” She had even made a big foam board for her door, a schedule
to help her manage time. Her cat had devoured it in a frighteningly
symbolic
act, leaving her with nothing but an essay due and a ticking clock.
Susan wasn’t the only one I found. I had heard that another like her
lived in New Haven. They called him “Seven Year Pete” and he
was rumored to be the “oldest undergraduate ever.” I was told
that I could find him at a local coffee shop, that he never left the
place.
But, naturally, he wasn’t there. His friends, a roguish group of
three,
told me that Pete had moved to Virginia and that he couldn’t be
reached.
He had too many boys in New Haven; it was impossible for him to
concentrate
on work when he was here.
They continued to talk about Pete for some time, growing less and less
cool
as they did so. Their stories began to sound conspiratorial. Yale was
supposedly
threatening to hold Pete’s diploma indefinitely, and he had needed
to “get away” until something blew over. He was holed up down
South, Yale was upset, and here I was, sipping coffee with three strangers
with as many cigarettes and a whole lot of tattoos.
I never did talk to Pete. Yet I couldn’t help but feel sorry for
him.
Susan had found happy anonymity in California. He was a known fugitive.
She
was working on her essay at leisure. He was finishing his under a looming
deadline. She was bedridden in the sun. And he was hiding from Big
Brother.
It just didn’t seem fair.
So I went looking for help. I figured that Susan was fine, but was worried
about Pete. I wanted to find him someone—a mentor who could inspire
him and coax him out of hiding. I found one, and she claimed to be good.
She was a dominatrix who dismissed all procrastinating students as
“naughty,
naughty” people. Her operation, “Fit-to-be-Tied,” seemed
legitimate. So I contacted her. Her name was Mistress Mineko, and she was
the real thing.
I explained that I was looking for students who could not possibly finish
their essays on time. I asked whether the Mistress could help these
stragglers,
and she said that she could. “I actually charge a reduced rate for
writers of overdue papers. In our experience, the more desperate the
client,
the easier he or she is to break,” she elaborated. I didn’t
really
know what she was talking about.
She sounded like a real hard-nose. She was clearly a sadist, but had a
girlish
sweetness. She told me, “[I’ll do] whatever it takes to get
results,
fast. All some clients require is a good talking to …  Other
clients
require more severe measures. This is why we require our agents to bring
one of our standard ‘thesis toolboxes’”—I could
only
guess what these boxes contained, envisioning some duct tape, gags, maybe
a low-voltage prod—“which include duct tape, gags, low-voltage
prods.”
I wasn’t sure whether bizarre sex would solve any of Pete’s
problems,
but the Mistress was onto something. Students like Pete just need to be
pushed
sometimes. Often all it takes is an authority figure stepping in—a
teacher, a parent, an older sibling, a sadist. I knew that I would never
be a figure of eminence to Pete. But maybe the Mistress could be. She was
so kind, so motherly, so obnoxiously raw. She was all a procrastinating
student
really needed—a smile, a hug, and a stinging slap on the ass.

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