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John Harvard's Journal

What Crimson Means to Me

July-August 2003

My first Harvard memory is deciding not to go here. I had never really considered attending, but my high-school principal, a big Harvard booster, asked me to apply and I decided it would be easier to do so than listen to him badger me for the remainder of the year. I applied without visiting, and was surprised to receive a thick envelope the following spring. I came down to see the place with my mother; following an obnoxious and underwhelming tour, we sat outside the admissions office talking. Amherst, my top choice, seemed all the more right. It was a beautiful April day and, as we stood up to leave, my mother stooped and broke off a tiny piece of dark green ivy from a nearby stone wall. "Here," she said, handing me the three-leafed V-shaped piece. "It looks like this is the closest you'll get to the Ivy League." That tiny piece of vine, now long-dried and withered, still hangs on my wall at home, a testament to unexpected directions. As recounted earlier (see "Accidental Academics," March-April, page 73), a follow-up visit for pre-frosh weekend won me over and the rest, as they say, is history: by the time this column is published, I will have joined the ranks of Harvard alumni as a member of the class of 2003.

The senior spring, after the thesis but before the job, is a natural time for reflection about the gifts and wondrous moments that Harvard has bestowed upon me during the past four years. It has had a profound impact shaping who I am, made me lifelong friends, and opened countless doors for me. I cannot hope to remember every moment of my time here—nor do I wish to—but certain moments have burned themselves into my memory. As I am sure is true for most alumni, my stay in Cambridge is less a movie than a collection of postcards—vivid, particularly happy or sad, transforming snapshots of time and place.

There are academic highlights, like my first classes ever in college, Thomas Kelly's opening lecture in his masterly course "First Nights: Five Musical Premieres," which underscored for me the blessing that is a broad liberal-arts education, as well as William Gienapp's "The American Civil War," which reawakened my love of history. There was discovering the inner beauty of the imposing Widener Library—that intellectually humbling feeling that occurs upon entering the 10 stories of stacks first thing in the morning, the motion-sensitive lights flickering on ahead of me as I walk, surrounded on all sides by books of varying accomplishment and importance—millions of books, billions of words that I'll never have the opportunity to read or ponder. I wrote most of my thesis sitting in the sunny atrium of the Phillips Reading Room, the stacks visible on either side, stretching up to the stylish modern skylights and the crisp blue sky overhead. On the coldest winter morning, the room and the somehow comforting presence of all those books brought energy and enthusiasm to my words.

Part of my intellectual journey involved my growth as a writer and journalist at the Crimson, where I lived Harvard history for four years—from the selection of Larry Summers as the twenty-seventh University president to a host of smaller, less notable events that stick with me. My primary beat as the cops reporter gave me a view of Harvard few ever see: the sometimes tense, real-life game of cops and robbers that plays out across campus on a daily basis. I spent an overnight shift riding with the Harvard University Police Department, searching for prowlers while dodging prowling skunks, and spent one Halloween at an arson scene in the biology labs. I joined in a foot chase that ended with the arrest of an intruder for committing a felony and two misdemeanors.

My sophomore year, having received advance word of the planned takeover of Massachusetts Hall by the Progressive Student Labor Movement in April 2001, the Crimson asked me to tag along to document history in the making. Nearly 50 students, accompanied by two national reporters and me, rushed in at 1:23 p.m. on April 18, to begin the longest building occupation in Harvard's history. The surreal day was tense as police and administrators filtered in and out, the protesters chanted, and the crowd outside grew. As one protester practiced yoga on the rug in front of her, receptionist Janice Braxton dealt with bewildered delivery people and answered calls with a hurried "Good afternoon, Mass. Hall reception, how may I help you?" Sitting at her desk hours later, I tapped out my Crimson article on a borrowed laptop during the seventh hour of the occupation. I stayed for only a few hours longer, but the students—and the drama—lasted three more weeks.

Needless to say, some of my most formative and memorable experiences were the personal ones that shaped friendships and love interests and made me smile on the darkest Cambridge winter nights: exploring Boston's delectable restaurants and the racks at Filene's Basement, skating on Boston Common's Frog Pond, cheering for the Red Sox in 30-degree weather at Fenway Park, an ill-fated pizza-eating contest my freshman year, and walking back to my room in Radcliffe Quad late—the stars shining down, and the street lights gently illuminating the slumbering stately buildings—stand out in my mind.

One of my fondest memories was of an intimate concert in Memorial Church one Friday night during the fall of my sophomore year, at which Livingston Taylor, Lowell House's artist-in-residence, sang some of his best-known songs. A fantastic stage performer, Taylor captivated the small audience with his classics like "City Lights" and "Grandma's Hands," as well as the uproarious "Guitar-playing Olympics," where he demonstrated—and provided a running commentary on—the Olympic event he most wished to see. Although it was the best concert I've ever been to, what I remember most from the night was his unique sweater vest: it was black with a giant red radish. My girlfriend swears that it was a beet, and we've argued back and forth for the last two years. This past spring, we attended his encore performance in Memorial Church, hoping that he would wear the same sweater and we'd be able to settle the dispute once and for all. The lights dimmed, the Church quieted, he walked out and his sweater came into view—no radish, no beet. This time, it depicted a giant brontosaurus. Or at least I say it's a brontosaurus.

Perhaps most central to my well-developed fondness for Harvard Yard, though, is how—as someone who loves history and seeks it out wherever I go—Harvard's history has been indelibly pressed upon me over the last four years. From the towering Memorial Hall to the breathtaking wall of names inside Memorial Church, to the Revolutionary War barracks of Massachusetts Hall, one cannot escape the College without being keenly aware of the many Harvard lives that have walked along these cow paths before. In that sense, Sparks House, the official residence of Peter J. Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, is classic Harvard. The interior overflows with plush Victorian furniture, pictures, oil paintings, Harvard memorabilia, and books, books, and more books.

As part of Gomes's Religion 1513, "History of Harvard and Its Presidents," I had the occasion, along with a third of the class, to dine at Sparks House last spring with former Harvard president Derek Bok. Entering the house for the first time, I was overwhelmed—candlelight, reflected by silver sconces and nearby mirrors, illuminated the elaborately set dining-room table. Hardly visible across the table through the centerpiece and candelabras, Bok reminisced about his time in Harvard's highest office as the evening progressed. As the hours wore on, the delectable courses passed in front of us and conversation continued under the watchful eyes of the nineteenth-century portraits on the wall, I never felt closer to the generations of Harvard alumni that preceded me. I am now one of them, and I have a deep understanding of the responsibility that being a Harvard alumnus entails. It is an exclusive club, and the education we have been provided is one of the greatest gifts possible—one that must be wielded carefully and used to better the world. I'm quite thankful that my principal guided me here to learn all of this.

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