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Essay

Who Are You, Anyway?

Siblings at Harvard

7.1.01

I remember when my younger sister Charlotte received her acceptance letter from Harvard. I shrieked and performed an atavistic dance of sibling glee among the pizza boxes and Diet Coke cans in my Dunster House common room. Charlotte was subdued. She expected and was expected to get in, and to go to Harvard. "You don't say 'no' to Harvard," murmured our relatives. Charlotte said "yes" and joined me in Cambridge during my senior year. Charlotte and I are the older half of a family of four girls. Soon our sister Sylvia, age 18, will join Harvard's class of 2005. (Our youngest sister, Pearl, age 14, upon hearing of Sylvia's acceptance said, "I never want to go to college! I just want to go camping.") After hugging the mailwoman who brought Sylvia's letter, I called dean of admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis to inquire about Harvard's stance on siblings applicants.

illustration of siblings running through Harvard Yard gate
Illustration by Mark Steele

"I suppose we rest a feather on the scales," said Lewis. "While our parental legacy rule is widely known and has long been in effect, we have no specific policy on siblings. Our essential, fundamental question to applicants is, 'Who are you, anyway?' The more we know and understand our applicants, the better. A sibling at Harvard can help in this process. As admissions officers, we often remember the salient details from the older sibling's application. Or perhaps the older sibling was in an admission officer's proctor group. It all helps us paint a more complete picture." But Lewis warns that blood does run thin: "Each year we receive lavishly drawn family trees mapping some family's genealogical ties to Harvard. Yet almost as a rule, the weaker the applicant's case, the more they push their Harvard lineage."

Charlotte's arrival stopped the slow leak of loneliness that pervaded my years at Harvard; college is often a selfish time--students need to focus on developing their minds, defining career goals, finding good friends and (perhaps, as grandmothers whisper about) a lifelong mate. I made fantastic friends at Harvard, but expected their ultimate concern for their own lives to surpass their interest in mine. With a sibling, the expectation is different. It is an irrational, unconditional love, and that is both good and bad.

In the first months of Charlotte's freshman year, she was my running partner. We met at 10:30 at night, even in the rain, dashing down Brattle Street, looping past the yeasty smells of Formaggio's Kitchen on Huron and the sleeping white statues of the Mount Auburn Cemetery. When Charlotte found another running partner, a different Sarah, who wanted to train for the marathon with her, I was disappointed, a little bitter.

Then I remembered Charlotte calling me late one night, to tell me that she had encountered an old flame of mine whose interest in me had foolishly extinguished itself. Upon seeing Charlotte's countenance in the moonlight, my ex, in a sentimental state of inebriation, decided to tell Charlotte of his love for me. Charlotte is tolerant of neither nonsense nor sentimentality. She is a social-studies concentrator, after all. "You lost your chance," she shook her finger at him. "Sara doesn't give her heart lightly. And you, you threw it away!"

"No, no--" he wailed. "Too late," she hissed, and turned on her heel. I, of course, had spent the past three months avoiding the fellow. I highly recommend having a fierce younger sister to fight your battles for you.

This same younger sister often journeyed to Dunster House to toil on her homework and sometimes to fall asleep on the heavy down comforter on my bed, her portable computer balancing precariously on the corner of the mattress, her cheeks flushed. My room was a safe place for Charlotte to catch up on the sleep she desperately needed. She suddenly seemed so young and little.

I suspect it is easier to be the first sibling. "It is hard to define myself in the negative," Charlotte told me, "to decide to take a class, join a club, or pursue an extracurricular activity because it is something that you didn't do, weren't good at, weren't interested in. Having to follow in someone's footsteps makes it more ambiguous to differentiate my motivations. Did I choose a path because I wanted to, or because you did or didn't have this experience?" Joanna Hootnick '02--sister of Adam '97, 3L, and Danielle '99--echoes these sentiments: "There is something to be said for learning from my mistakes on my own, in a place where everything is still undiscovered and exciting." But this initial loss of autonomy and newness is counterbalanced by the promise of what Harvard has to offer; there is not just one a cappella group to sing in, there are 12. The younger sibs visited the elders before deciding to enroll, and liked what they saw.

The older sibling's influence is particularly strong during the younger student's freshman year. Lauren Bell '02 recalls, "After Meredith ('97) graduated, she called Karyn ('99) to make sure she was supervising me enough. They both wanted to ensure that I knew the wildness of freshman year was a passing phase. They told me to wait it out, be careful who I was dating, and not to drink, promising that at the end of the year everyone would calm down, and I would be glad not to have done anything foolish. I followed their advice and am glad I did--though sometimes I wonder what my first year would have been like if I hadn't. It was great to have Karyn with me at Harvard during my freshman year, but hard to adjust when she graduated at the end of it."

Many younger siblings value the counsel of their older siblings not only for filling a void in Harvard's advising system, but for lending cohesiveness to their college experience as well. Bell notes, "My sisters recommended that I take Economics 10 as a freshman, and I've ended up majoring in ec. Then, as a junior, they advised me on when to take the GREs and the LSATs, and reminded me to start looking for summer internships in February." Joanna Hootnick cites the importance of family in easing what can otherwise be a difficult transition: "All freshmen feel lonely, anxious, and stressed at some point or another. While Harvard has important resources, like the Bureau of Study Counsel or the University Health Services, I never needed to use them because I had my brother and sister to turn to. They knew, from their own not-so-distant memories of freshman year, what I was going through."

In what ways is sharing Harvard with a sibling different from treading a parent's collegiate path? My family shares a Harvard lineage, true. But my father's stories of sipping sherry with his Lowell House master at High Table and poring over Democracy in America in the all-male Lamont Library are chapters in our family lore, rather than influences on Charlotte's, my, and soon Sylvia's daily experience at Harvard. Spending time with Charlotte at Harvard and sharing a knowledge of the place has deepened our foundations of trust for each other. We shared a crucial transitional time (my senior, her freshman, year), and I recognize the similarities between her intellectual and social experiences and my own. We are different, of course. She always arrives early, I am always late. I think in fragments of poetry and snatches of Beethoven and Barber. She thinks in terms of historical dates, Kant, Mill and Foucault, numbers and graphs. Yet Charlotte is my barometer. I trust her intellect and her emotional clock, even though it may tick out of sync with mine. I trust her wholly. I don't always like her opinions. They are vehemently held, and her critique stings me more than anyone else's. I am equally relieved at her praise. If Char says that I am doing fine, then I am. Unlike most weathermen, she's never been wrong.

I once attended a Great Gatsby-themed party at a final club. Feathers drooped from sequined headbands, long black gloves waved throughout the room, and white ties and cigarette holders paid tribute to the Roaring Twenties fashions of East Egg. A small band played Gershwin in the corner. Couples awkwardly box-stepped their way through fox-trots, tangos, mambos, and the jitterbug, bashful with each other and sheepish about the dancing lessons that were never fashionable in our generation. Then, in the middle of the knot of quietly murmuring couples, Danielle and Adam Hootnick began to dance, twirling, tangoing and dipping, grinning and laughing. We stepped back and applauded the two people who could finally dance it up, conjuring the house of a thousand silk shirts and the docks that looked out at Daisy's green light. Danielle and Adam's grace was a throwback to the days when people knew the right dance steps and everyone wore gloves for real. While the other partygoers were maladroit, the brother and sister pair, for a fleeting second, broke away from their friends to engage in a moment so familiar that it could have been learned only in their family's living room.

 

Sara Houghteling '99, one of this magazine's former Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellows, is a freelance writer.