Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Homes Away from Homes

September-October 2007

Though I have two years left before I bid farewell to Harvard, I stayed through Commencement this past June to write for the Crimson and volunteer during reunion events. The day after graduation, I was frenetically removing my life from the fifth-floor room in Dunster House where I had lived during the two weeks after exams. The weather was sweltering, my parents had just driven in from Illinois, and I was seriously contemplating throwing all of my clothes into garbage bags and chucking them out the window when my computer chimed. A desperate e-mail had popped into my in-box: “Tour guide needed at 3 pm for alumni in town for their 30th reunion.” Hastily I replied, “Sure, I got it covered.”

I find showing visitors around Harvard a rewarding and often hilarious experience. From the moment a tourist’s hand shot up to demand, “Where’s Cape Cod?” in the middle of my spiel, to my all-time favorite—“How many squirrels are there at Harvard?”—the hour I spend with strangers makes me look at my school with fresh eyes.

As corny as it sounds, I love giving tours because I love being someone’s “face” of Harvard: a formerly intimidating establishment that is now my home. When I give tours, I talk about the school the way a proud mother might talk about a slightly misguided but well-intentioned child. Because I give tours through Harvard’s information office, not through the admissions office, my usual audiences are tourists, not prospective students. Thus, my chief responsibility is not to “sell” the school, but to give a well-rounded account of its history and modern idiosyncrasies.

I chattered on and on to the thirtieth reunioners about what it was like to go to Harvard in the twenty-first century. I talked about the birth (and impending death) of the Core curriculum and elaborated on the socioeconomic diversity fostered by the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative. When they asked how the re- signation of former President Lawrence H. Summers was received on campus, I spoke about the pro-Larry protest I witnessed outside Mass. Hall, articulated my frustration with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and showed them the new Harvard College Women’s Center in the basement of Canaday. We had a long talk about how the Internet has shaped modern college life, and they were surprised when I told them that their own high-school kids probably had accounts on Facebook.com.

I felt empowered merely by my status as a 20-year-old College student. As I explained how the housing system had changed radically since they had left Harvard, I joked about the former stereotypes of each undergraduate House and the holdovers from that era that continue today.

Yet even though I was feeling rather pleased with how well-informed I was, I realized that, despite being able to use the word “blockmate” with relative ease and speak about randomization, I wasn’t really any more knowledgeable than the alumni I escorted. Though I am well versed in speaking about Harvard—my home today—so were they 30 years ago. And by the time I come back for my thirtieth—or by the time their youngest kids are filling out a FAFSA and a common app (the ubiquitous financial-aid and admissions forms required for Harvard applications)—I will be long past the era when I can call Harvard home.

All college students have that moment that surprises them and demoralizes their parents: the moment when they first refer to going back to school as “going home.” I remember my mother looking at me like a wounded animal. “How could you call that place home?” she asked. Yet Harvard’s idiosyncrasies—including my double bedroom (the size of a moderately generous closet), the cockroach that jovially followed me into my common room one night this year, and beef fajita fettuccini (that culturally ambiguous culinary experience served every so often in the dining hall)—have somehow come together to make this place feel comfortable and natural. Despite all of the patently un-homey things about Harvard, it is where I live. In the two years since I left Illinois, Harvard has shifted from being my school to being my home away from home.

This summer, I am working in New York City at a finance magazine. I research and write about billionaires, people who have homes across the country and around the world. Some of these people jet from house to house, with or without their families. My research has caused me to wonder: If all the money in the world can buy you a penthouse in Manhattan, a ranch in Colorado, and a beachfront villa in Palm Beach, can all of these places be home?

I was reluctant to move to New York, mostly because it felt cold and unfriendly when I visited in January. But after three weeks here, I already feel it growing on me. “See, before you know it,” one of my fellow interns told me, “New York is going to be your home away from home.”

His use of the phrase startled me. “Home away from home” implies that there is some place that reigns first in our consciousness, some primary establishment that wins out in the home hierarchy, and that every place we come to call home after that original abode is only second, or third—and so on to infinity—compared to it.

I assured him that Illinois was my home, and Harvard was my home away from home. He asked what New York was. And it hit me: It was my home away from home away from home.

If Harvard is my home away from home, then I am scared to see what happens when I am forced to move on. If the place I am supposed to call home no longer feels like home, and every other place is my home away from there, then maybe it’s true: you can’t go home again.

As students in the global age, we are encouraged to travel, to explore, to plant roots and sow seeds and make connections wherever we land. But the idea that we can have homes away from homes away from homes by the time we’re 20 is terrifying. How many degrees of separation can we put between ourselves and our places of origin before our concept of home becomes so diluted that no place is ever really home, but at most a fraction?

Last week, my best friend from high school came to visit New York. She still lives in our hometown. I was telling her about how it felt to be midway through college and what I wanted from the next few years of my life: to keep working in New York through this summer, to spend next summer researching in Africa, and to become a journalist in New York after graduation. She leaned across the table and said, “You’re never coming home again.”

Sometimes I wonder if it bothers me more that I am drifting away from my home, or that my home is drifting away from me. As hard as it was to imagine myself without my home before I left for college, it was even harder to imagine my home continuing to exist without my presence there.

The typical narcissism of a teenager barely fades when we get to college: visiting my freshman-year dorm room as a sophomore, I couldn’t help but fume silently at the four current occupants for intruding on my life. That must have been the way those members of the class of 1977 felt as I led them around Harvard Yard, showing them the places they used to live, telling them about the myriad ways in which my school was now differ ent from theirs. Had I been those men following me around the paths they had walked on a decade before I was born, I might have asked myself what on earth this little girl was doing, giving me a tour of my own house.

I chose to go straight from Harvard to New York this summer without spending time in Illinois. Although this was my own decision—and something I was ultimately happy about—I was jealous when my cousin Rachel visited my parents, went to “my” movie theater, shopped at “my” mall, slept in my bed. When my mom confided that she had let Rachel “take a few things she liked” from my closet, I snapped. The idea that another five-foot, three-inch, 20-year-old bru nette who shared half of my relatives might actually replace me was crushing. Selfishly, I thought home was supposed to be waiting for me whenever I wanted it: never did it occur to me that things might change if I weren’t there.

My experience with the class of 1977 marked the halfway point of my time at Harvard. And however comfortable I feel most of the time, there are still days when I feel as though I have just arrived and, frankly, just want to go home. As I wandered around campus early in June writing about graduation, it was hard to ignore the fact that the grins of the class of 2007 often masked apprehension and fears about the future.

What are they scared of? What am I scared of? I’m scared that I’ll end up alone in a big city, feeling as if I’m stuck somewhere in between the places I’ve lived. I’m scared that I’ll get back to Illinois and not recognize the person sleeping in my bed, that I’ll go back to Harvard and not recognize the people writing for the Crimson, or the mascot of Winthrop House.

I wish I had answers to some of the questions I’m asking. But I know that I’m already nostalgic for things I still have, and to be a 20-year-old yearning for the good ol’ days may be unhealthy, if not downright twisted. More important than the physical places I’ve lived will be the people and moments I take home (away from home away from home) with me. In “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” Bob Dylan sings, “What kind of house is this…where I have come to roam?” He answers himself, reassuring the scores of young college students nostalgic for music from before their time: “‘It’s not a house,’ said Judas Priest, ‘It’s not a house, it’s a home.’”

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