In February of Junior year, Robert goes to speak with the master of Pierson College. The meeting is short, with the master telling Robert that he’s destroying his potential by selling drugs. Robert doesn’t deny anything, and says, “I’m sorry.” Robert realizes that the Yale administration isn’t going to discipline him for selling drugs—as he tells Oswaldo, “It looks bad for the university if someone like me goes down like that.” Soon afterwards, Oswaldo has a nervous breakdown.
Robert knows that the Yale administration won’t expel him for selling drugs—as a black student, he knows that the administration will want to avoid a controversy that could tarnish Yale’s image as a “diverse” place. Oswaldo’s nervous breakdown doesn’t seem to be linked to Robert’s drug dealing in any direct way, but it’s also abundantly clear that Robert’s behavior causes his friend a lot of stress.
At the end of his junior year, Robert begins receiving mysterious emails that say things like, “We are watching you.” Robert has been tapped for Elihu, a Yale secret society. As part of the initiation process, Robert has to memorize chants and drink obscene amounts of alcohol. After being confirmed, Robert has to pay one hundred dollars in membership dues. When his check bounces, Laurel Bachner, the wealthy, white head of Elihu is on the verge of paying Robert’s dues instead of confronting him. But Robert gives her the check, explaining that the bank changed his account number. At the initiation party, Robert gets very drunk and loud. This displeases Oswaldo, who worries that minority students at Yale are just reinforcing the stereotypes about them—“that they get stoned all the time, dress like thugs,” get angry, etc.
Yale’s secret societies are often seen as representing the university’s closed-off, traditional nature. So it’s surprising, and even refreshing, that one of the most prominent secret societies recruits a black student from a working-class family. Notice, also, that Oswaldo is concerned that Robert’s behavior strengthens white prejudice by conforming to black stereotypes—essentially placing the burden of dispelling racism on its victims, not its perpetrators. (Versions of this argument are also often made to criticize gangster rap and other aspects of black culture perceived as glorifying violence and crime.)
In September 2001, senior year begins. Jeff vividly remembers sitting in his dorm room with Ty and Robert, watching the collapse of the Twin Towers. Robert spends the evening at Anwar Reed’s house. Anwar Reed lives in a dangerous part of New Haven, and he sells drugs. Following 9/11 and the heightened security on the Yale campus, Robert becomes more cautious with dealing drugs.
Many universities increased campus security after 9/11, and Yale was no exception. But the passage also shows that Robert is becoming more mature and careful in the way he sells marijuana, showing that he doesn’t want another clash with the Yale administration (even though he’s cockily claimed that he’ll never be kicked out).
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Jeff recalls, many Yale students dive deeper into hedonism. One night, Jeff and Robert drive north to go to a casino. Robert plays blackjack late into the night. In November of senior year, Robert convinces Jeff to smoke marijuana for the first time. He tells Jeff that the weed is “on the house”—but he says it in a way that makes it clear that “this would be the last freebie.”
Robert is responsible for getting Jeff high for the first time ever—a milestone that Jeff seems to remember vividly. Robert clearly considers Jeff a friend, but he’s not going to let their friendship get in the way of his business: ultimately, Jeff is also just another one of his customers.
As senior year goes on, science majors prepare to take the MCAT. Surprisingly, Robert says he won’t be taking the test. Unbeknownst to Jeff, Robert has netted over $100,000 selling marijuana. Meanwhile, Jeff develops an ambition to become a writer, and completes a (terrible) novel.
Robert’s decision not to take the MCAT (something that the bulk of biology majors at Yale would do) might seem odd. But on the other hand, he’s saved a lot of money, and is entitled to enjoy some time to himself. And furthermore, his goals for the future don’t seem much vaguer than Jeff’s goal of becoming a writer.
One night, Jeff and Robert talk about their futures. Jeff plucks up the courage to ask Robert about his father, and Robert claims that he doesn’t really think about his father at all.
This is one of the only times in the book when Robert opens up to Jeff—and yet even here, Robert doesn’t reveal much, and seemingly lies when he says he doesn’t think about Skeet much.
As spring rolls around, Jeff and Ty realize that they’ve never seen Robert play water polo, even though he’s captain of his team. The two roommates attend one of Robert’s games, and they’re amazed with his energy and grace, and the way he yells at the opposing players to intimidate them.
Water polo, as Hobbs has already made very clear, is a WASP-y sport. In many ways, Robert’s behavior during a water polo game mirrors his experience at Yale more generally. Instead of being quiet and trying to fit in with the predominately white, affluent culture, he rebels in various ways while still achieving great success.
Robert prepares for the defining ritual of the Elihu society—the “bio.” All senior members of the society are required to tell the story of their lives to their fellow members. To everyone’s surprise, Robert—usually pretty quiet in Elihu meetings—delivers a four-hour bio in which he talks about his father. He says Skeet was the victim of a system designed to persecute black men, and concludes, “the white establishment would always keep the common black man down in order to cover their own asses.” That night, Arthur Turpin, a wealthy white student in Elihu who gets along well with Robert, sees for the first time how much anger Robert is guarding.
Robert reveals that he’s been bottling up a lot of anger and frustration. Some of this anger seems directed at the people who arrested and convicted his father. But some of his anger seems directed at white culture and white society in general: as he sees it, white society is actively waging war on black people. Given what Hobbs has already written about life in Newark in the 1980s, Robert has a point.
Jeff isn’t sure what Robert plans to do following graduation. He visits Robert in East Orange in the spring. Jeff is nervous about being, quite literally, the only white person in the neighborhood, but everyone is very friendly. Jeff and Robert attend a cookout, and Jeff experiences a degree of warmth from Robert’s friends and family that he’s “never experienced in my own WASP upbringing.” Jeff also notices that the only person who doesn’t seem overjoyed with Robert’s accomplishments is Jackie.
Hobbs evokes some of the stereotypes about working-class black people and WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants): black people are honest, open, and “real,” while WASPs are chilly and austere. But the passage also foreshadows some of Robert’s impending misfortunes: it’s almost as if Jackie knows that something is about to go wrong for her son.
Yale graduation is a two-day process, during which Robert smokes a lot of marijuana. After the speeches, Robert takes Jackie to a cocktail party at the Elihu house. The final event of the graduation season is the diploma ceremony. When Robert accepts his diploma, he makes a brief speech, as is the custom, in which he dedicates the moment to “my motivation and heart, my mother.”
This is, in some ways, the happiest moment in the entire book. Robert has achieved a great success: a Yale degree. By thanking his mother, he acknowledges the enormous amount of work she did to send him to school, showing that he’s a good, loving son.
The next morning, after a night of partying, Jeff wakes up and packs his things. Robert isn’t in his dorm, so Jeff leaves without saying goodbye. Jeff reasons that he and Robert will see each other again soon—“There would always be time.”
Jeff’s words should be taken as darkly ironic, since, as we know from the book’s very title, Robert does not have unlimited time left on this earth.