Thursday, November 5, 2009

Summer Reflections on Boston and Cambridge: My Visit to Harvard

One of this summer's activities that influenced me the most, that had the greatest impact on my notion of re-inventing myself, was my visit to Harvard.  Since I have spent almost a third of my life working and studying on college campuses, and since Boston boasts a number of well-known colleges, it was a given that Harvard be on our itinerary.

That morning I tried to desctibe my ambivalent feelings.  Harvard is such a part of my cultural landscape, whether through books, movies, world-famous research, celebrities, or others of high profile, that our trip would have been diminished if we missed this opportunity.  On the other hand, I feared that I would feel like an outsider, forever looking in, as though being granted a privilege to set foot on the grounds but never belonging.  For the first time, I was feeling the effects of time running out, of a door being forever closed...

However, in the spirit of adventure more characteristic of college freshman than highbrow tourists, Mark and I chose to attend the "Hahvahd Tour", the unofficial student-run tour of campus and Cambridge.  According to the brochure, the tour is conducted by "seasoned guides who highlight Harvard hot-spots through a satisfying blend of in-depth knowledge, side-spliting jokes, historical accounts, and exclusive takes on student life at Harvard!"    We could not resist!!

It was pouring rain....No problem!  Our guides, Alex and Mathew, were boisterous, friendly, and surprisingly well-versed in Harvard history.  Our small group grew to about 40 people, and we started for Harvard yard in a deluge, armed with umbrellas.   
It was informal and called to mind Freshman Orientation at any college, the one you go to without your parents. As our guides began in full comic voice, I immediately relaxed.  Here were two college students, like students everywhere, who liked jokes, pranks, and made us their accomplices.  Nothing snobbish here, but flesh and blood kids with good minds, big hearts, and wicked senses of humor.
I learned:
--Harvard is the country's first college, and has the oldest classroom building
--One of the most beautiful buildings, used for lectures, was built to memorialize fallen Civil War Soldiers. Designed by a Freemason, it contained many kinds of Christian symbols and imagery. The building may have looked like a church, but had no religious intent. The building also housed the Freshman-only Dining hall.
--William James (brother of author Henry James), taught Philosophy, and one of his students was Gertrude Stein, who was having too much fun to study for the final exam.  To the only question on the exam, "What is the meaning of Life?", Stein replied that she had enjoyed herself too much to care, and asked to opt out of the test. Soon after that, having a change of heart, she asked Professor James for a re-test...but to her astonishment, her earlier non-answer was accepted and actually got her an A in the class.
--Timothy Leary taught at Harvard, and was thrown out for manufacturing and overusing LSD.
--Students don't have Majors...they are referred to as "Concentrators".  Alex was a Psychology Concentrator, Matt, a Political Science Concentrator.
--The huge Weidner Library was named for a man who died on the Titanic after staying on-board to save his books!  His mother endowed Harvard with millions of dollars to build the library, stipulating that it could never be altered, and that it must contain a room that no one could ever enter, except for a librarian, to place fresh flowers for the ghost of her son, who was also allowed to visit!
--The statue of John Harvard may have been a relative, not John Harvard himself.  The model was likely a Harvard president, most of whom had dorms and other buildings named after them.  But this particular president had the name "Hoar"...not a great name for a student residence!  So in consolation, they sculpted his likeness.  Students supposedly touch the statue for good luck before exams; but apparently, disgusting things are done to the statue all the time, and we were warned against touching it. ~~~
~~~Later, thinking on the day and the fun we had, it occurred to me that Harvard might in fact be forever closed to me.  It never bothered me before....but I always maintained the attitude that nothing was impossible.  Maybe, it remains a possibility for me some day....but before the trip was over, I realized that there are still ways to achieve dreams, and that the Idea of Me and Harvard was more about self-image than achievement.  I felt the sadness of one who had to face reality and end a clandestine love affair, even though I was still in love.  But time, and life, go on!

(Special thanks to Alex and Matthew...I hope you're doing well!)

1 comment:

  1. As someone who's limited education on Boston was gleaned from too many episodes of "Cheers," I was very pleased to read your great post about Harvard and your recent visit there. The "Hahvahd Tour" sounds like a crack up and the amusing facts and anecdotes made for a very interesting story. Well done!