I am the sum of my achievements. This is what my schooling has taught me. I’ve had 17 years of elite education, from kindergarten to college, each chapter capped with honors and prizes. In middle school, it was the French prize, the History prize, and the Katy Ames Leadership Award. In high school, the Faculty Prize for Outstanding Academic Achievement. I’ve learned from the best of the best, and they’ve taught me that I should hope to become an Academy Award-winning actor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and/or a Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker. And when I die, if I die, my grave will be the largest one in the cemetery, a tomb, really, laden with fresh flowers and frequented by hundreds of millions of admirers.
I’m not sure when I began my quest for immortality. I was raised by parents who came to this country with empty pockets and became highly acclaimed physicians. They indoctrinated me with their mantra of “you can do it” and said that I should do even better than them. By “better” I suppose they meant that I should be happier. Or more famous. Or both— can you really separate fame from happiness? That I should make more money, change more lives, and have a national memorial erected in my honor. There is no limit to what you can do, they tell me. I have tried my best to believe them.
And at every stage of my amazing education, I have tried my best to prove that it’s true, that I can and must do everything I set my mind to.
I slew the competition in my middle school speech tournaments. I went to my first tournament in the sixth grade, brought home the first place ribbon, and tacked it up on the wall in my room. A few weeks later, my Dad built me a trophy shelf. The trophies kept coming: bowl-shaped trophies, trophies with gold-colored diving angel figurines, and trophies like mini tomb-stones, small granite blocks with the tournament name, speech category, and “First Place” etched on the front. The second- and third-place trophies in my collection were flukes, evidence of unintelligent judging. My parents found plenty of ways to console me for my almost-wins.
Oh you judges, you nameless, faceless powers who sat behind the table with your notepads and your pens: why did you deify me before I turned 14? Why did you send me home with so much granite and plastic? Didn’t you know I would run out of room on my shelf?
I crashed in junior year of high school. I had aimed, from my very first day at Phillips Academy Andover, to become the school president. There was no speech team at Andover, and even if there had been, I wouldn’t have joined. I could do public speaking really well—so what? I needed to conquer another arena, to prove my godliness by winning at something else. Student politics was the ultimate popularity contest. Hundreds of smart, talented kids from across the world stood in their Ralph Lauren attire every Wednesday morning to cheer the school president as he gave his speech at all-school assembly. I wanted to be that kid. But after years of making “friends” and months of plastering campus with posters and weeks of interviews and debates and days of final speech preparations, I came in third place. THIRD! I lost. I nearly threw up when the results came in. I reviewed my campaign strategy over and over in my head and came up with a list of the ways I had gone wrong. If only I had gone to more parties, or joined an a cappella group, or had a girlfriend! I tried to convince myself that a victory would not have guaranteed my future success. My parents said, “don’t worry, we understand, you did very well.”
At Yale, I resisted every temptation to make a plan. (Oh, yeah, I got in to Yale). I had failed to fulfill my self-determined destiny at Andover, so I would do Yale unscripted. I auditioned for improv comedy teams, thinking improvisation would be good training for me. I didn’t get in. As my peers and suitemates were hauled out of their beds in the middle of the night for a variety of ego-boosting tap night activities, for improv and a cappella and clubs, I tried my best to not to care.
But over time I was allured, and seduced, and haunted by the presence of the senior secret societies and their tombs. They were the only buildings I was not allowed to enter, and so they represented all the things I would never be able to know, or do—the lips I would never kiss, the gravity I would never defy, and the other innumerable joys I would never imagine, much less experience. They were omnipresent, so much so that they became invisible, like subtext, their locked doors a constant reminder of my limitations. Of my mortality. They were called tombs, after all. In the brief moments when I stopped in front of one, nervous lest another pedestrian turned the corner and caught me, or worse, a distinguished senior exited through the steel doors, I stared at my own death. At the end. At the final barrier, and the fact that I am not in control of my fate. I began to wish, despite my project of living Yale unscripted, that in junior year I would be tapped. I began to wonder what I would have to do to guarantee my ascension to the ranks of the elect.
Society talk pervaded campus every year, especially in the second half of spring semester. In junior year I found wax- sealed letters on my doorstep and attended interviews in a variety of off-campus locations. My friends and I rehashed these interviews and the follow-up interviews and shared our tap night predictions. Even my friend who was a sophomore was talking about it—she was worried that her friend from high school wouldn’t tap her the following year because she had so many other friends. I began to realize that I was not the only one allured, and seduced, and haunted. It was a campus-wide obsession, fed by rumors about the different initiation processes, and also by the campus tabloid that published the names of the blessed few who made it into Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and Wolf’s Head.
So much for secrecy. The whole point of societies, it seemed, was to separate the worthy from the unworthy for all of Yale and the world to see. Even the most nonchalant society members, who insisted that it was no more than a cool college experience, walked campus with their chins a little bit higher. Many who were rejected mourned at a bar during tap night. They felt angry and cheated, and they questioned their choices and their merits.
As for my tap night, I am not really allowed to tell you about it, so the following paragraphs may or may not be true. It’s up to you to decide. I am sworn to secrecy.
A week before tap night, I received seventeen emails and phone calls from professors and friends asking me to meet them in various locations. Each of these calls was made on behalf of a society, of course, so when I showed up in Branford at 8:40 p.m. it was not my writing professor but the representatives of Scroll and Key who were waiting to meet me. At 9 p.m., it was Book and Snake in front of the art gallery. At 9:20 p.m., Wolf’s Head (complete with a lot of wolfish howling). At 10 p.m., Manuscript. Then I met representatives of several off-campus societies whose names I can’t remember. I returned to my apartment at 3 a.m., slightly drunk, exhausted, and over- whelmed with the decision I would have to make—you can join only one society—only to discover that the various societies had left packages bearing wine, chocolate, and gifts.
I spent the next few days meeting with representatives of the societies to learn more about the culture and ethos of each one. Some were drinking clubs. Others were more intellectual, with a focus on writing or discussion or debate. I spoke to my friends and professors about the different options and learned, through word of mouth, who my peers in each one might be. My writing professor, who loves society gossip, called to congratulate me and to discuss which society would best benefit my talents as a writer. My drama teachers called to discuss my career as an actor and how the various societies might shape my path.
I made my decision. I can’t tell you which one I chose, because it’s “secret” by definition, but if you were on campus at the time you probably found out.
Tap night was the most beautiful night of my life. I arrived home from class in the evening only to find three masked figures waiting for me. They undressed me and rubbed me with lavender ointments and dressed me in the ceremonial robes. We then proceeded under cover of darkness to the tomb, which opened before me for the first time with the glow of hundreds of candles of all shapes and sizes. The marble walls, plain on the outside, were engraved on the inside with an enormous map, so that the viewer who stood in the center of the room felt that he or she was at the center of the world.
I stood on the pedestal in the middle and heard my accomplishments voiced by a multitude of masked figures, including current members and distinguished alumni. Later I learned that they were New York Times editors, Wall Street CEOs, world-famous artists and philanthropists, and even a former president or two. “To Eric Sirakian,” they said, “who is one of the finest students at Yale University.” They spoke about me for what seemed like an hour, and by the time they were done I had cried several times and my tears had dried up. I was led into the basement banquet hall to sit with the rest of my tap class and the distinguished alumni, masks off, for a lavish feast of chateaubriand au poivre with truffle fries, heaping salads, exotic fruits, and bottomless desserts. Over the course of the next two hours I was offered a role in a movie, a generous commission to write a new Broadway play, and a Wall Street investment deal that would keep my bank account full for the rest of my life.
Then the grown-ups left and the seniors took us into the dungeon and doused us with wine before leading us in hundred-year-old society chants. We had to put on blindfolds and masturbate in a coffin one by one while everyone watched. We each had to take a little green pill. They wouldn’t tell us what it was, but it made me feel like I was floating upside down. There was an animal sacrifice and we rubbed each other with blood before engaging in an orgy. I was somewhat terrified, but the orgy unleashed a rhinoceros in me that had lain dormant for years. Everyone I had sex with was beautiful and delicious. They became my best friends. One of the girls became the love of my life. The rest of my memory is hazy, but I know I emerged the following morning with a vanquisher’s bliss.
A few weeks later, I quit. I had an epiphany. I remembered my decision to keep my time at Yale unscripted, and I knew that society would not allow me to do that. I realized that no honor would ever be large enough to confer meaning upon my life, and that after 17 years of elite education, I needed to learn to find that meaning on my own. I didn’t want to spend an entire year, at 22 years old, entering and exiting a tomb and thus enacting my death and resurrection, my invincibility. Besides, I had a lot of projects to pursue, and my work was more important to me than 12 hours a week of mandatory social time plus spontaneous weekend trips to Mexico plus congratulatory banquets. And nowadays I am fighting very hard to LIVE without obsessions and regrets, because a tomb is waiting for me at the end.