Undergraduate English Oration: "Perfect Imperfection"

Four years ago many of us received letters inviting us to be part of a seemingly perfect world...

by Alicia Menendez '05


Four years ago many of us received letters inviting us to be part of a seemingly perfect world. We all knew the response that the quasi-mythical idea of Harvard elicited from others: a sense of shock and awe. As Harvard students, the façade of perfection was transferred to us. Our first year, tourists asked us to hold their babies and take pictures, exclaiming: "Current Harvard student, future Harvard student!" as though our touch would bestow an intellectual blessing. Four years later the most valuable lesson we have learned is that Harvard is not perfect, and neither are we.

By its sheer example, Harvard taught us that even the best does not always attain perfection. The less than stellar grade and the disappointed friend were subtle reminders that we, too, could fall short. It was feasible to hide private failures and personal anguish underneath conversations of ease and fluidity. But living in such close proximity to each other, as the lines between the public and private blurred, it became increasingly difficult to be a public success and a private mess. Your roommate knew when you slept through your 11 a.m. class every day and your teammates knew when your game was off because something was going wrong at home. We did not need to tell each other that we were imperfect or that our lives were imperfect; it showed. However, we came not only to accept each other's imperfections, but to love people because they were equally inconsistent, equally confused, equally human.

In absolving us of the burden of personal perfection, Harvard inadvertently prepared us for life. Life itself is imperfect: Things fall apart. People fall apart. Friendships fall apart. Even families fall apart. It was a lesson that we as a class and we as a nation learned the day before our first Harvard lecture: September 11, 2001. But in the course of our time here, we also learned that it is our responsibility to each other and to ourselves to pick things up and put them back together. Some seams are effortlessly re-stitched with an apology or a kind word. Others take more time, more healing. And still others require more sociological super-glue than we have at our disposal. But we cannot afford to simply resign ourselves to the fact that things are not perfect in the first place. We cannot turn our backs on people, things, or an institution we once loved, simply because we have found their flaws. What we can do is reassemble the pieces and find beauty in the way things come together, even if it is different from the way things once were, even if it is not perfect.

We may sometimes disagree with the University on anything from the move to Allston to issues of divestment. We may criticize the administration for being out of touch with the student body. Many of us think Harvard is a lonely place—perhaps even its president. But most of us realize that at the core, its principles and values remain strong. Harvard is constantly evolving. We are undeniably a part of that change. We keep the University humble. We remind the College that it still has a lot of pieces to put together.

Yet when I think of Harvard, I will not think of the imperfections of its politics. Instead, I will think of the glimmers of perfection: the Yard on a spring day, the light reflecting off the river at Head of the Charles, and the Lowell bell tower casting shadows along the cobblestone. I will think of the moments when a friend changed forever the way I thought about film, mandatory minimums, sewing bees, no limits Texas hold 'em, and how to color coordinate. I will think of my imperfect friends and the very, very perfect moments we shared.

If you were all still paralyzed by the reality of your imperfection, you would give up now. But you're not and you won't. Instead you'll pursue perfection from a different angle. Some of you will go into the world to do: to create, to invent, to begin families, to make money. Others of you will go into the world to undo: to remedy injustices, to reform laws, to fight discrimination. Doing and undoing are undeniably entangled. Either way, it is our admission that the world is not yet perfect, but that we, imperfect people with the purest of hearts and the noblest of intentions, harbor the tremendous, tremendous hope that we may bring it a little closer. Thank you.

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