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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Ghosts

July-August 2009

I had my last class on a Thursday, a Core course that met early in the morning in the Science Center. After the lecture, two fellow undergraduates and I had coffee with our professor, who had invited the class to join him. We sat at a table in the sunshine outside the Greenhouse Café and discussed the life and work of Albert Einstein, the subject of the course. Once the visit ended, I walked out of the Science Center and through Tercentenary Theatre with one of the other students, a sophomore English concentrator. We talked about our final papers, and I recommended classes for him to take. We parted at the steps of Widener Library. If it hadn’t been my last day of college classes, I might have made a new friend.

The next evening, I attended a party hosted by old friends. Unlike most haphazardly organized college parties, this one featured food to represent the various republics of the former Soviet Union as well as an abundance of European alcohol. In this relaxed environment, I talked to my blockmates, familiar acquaintances, and a few new faces. Having become used to my House community, concentration, roommates, and activities—all things that eventually constituted my college experience—I seemed to have forgotten the novelty of meeting new people.

I spent Saturday afternoon at the Coop, looking through books meant to help me plan my post-graduate life. I had decided that I wanted to spend the year abroad, teaching English to make ends meet. I left with First-Time Around the World, a title as promising as I could hope for. The lazy day reminded me of other times I had leisurely browsed bookstores: when I visited college campuses as a high-school student, meandered through a foreign city, or spent a summer day looking through volumes I found interesting, independent of my schoolwork. This sense of exploration, newness, and uncertainty, I realized, was going to be my life again, following a Thursday ceremony just a month away. But in exchange, I’d have to give up so much of what had become familiar.

 

During the past few years, I have occasionally wondered what my senior champagne brunch would be like. The event brings seniors back to Annenberg, the freshman dining hall, to sit with their freshman entryway. I pictured white tablecloths, catered food, and myself seamlessly transitioning from one successful social interaction to another. 

I was right about the tablecloths, but little else. We got our food on trays from the servery, just as we had as first-years, and struggled to balance everything while swerving left and right to avoid banging into others in too small a space. The hall was crowded and noisy, and it took some time before my freshman proctor and I could find a place to sit. Other students from our Mower entryway soon joined us.


My entryway as a whole shared relationships of friendly indifference during our year together, and the same held true in our reunion. We asked one another what we were planning to do after graduation and laughed over a few common memories. Though I followed the conversations around me as well as I could, I could not help glancing around the room, as different faces conjured up different memories for me. Oh, yes, her—we were once friendly. I wonder if we would have become friends if we had come across each other more? Oh, yes, him. Ugh. As I glanced around and saw my friends at different tables, I wished I could rearrange the seating of the event so that the people who had become my closest friends were sitting with me. I wanted to eat with them in Annenberg to supplant my memories of freshman-year awkwardness with a senior self who had more or less found her way.

I left the brunch chastened, realizing that four years do not tidy up as nicely as I would have liked. “I felt like a freshman all over again, and it made me wonder whether I changed at all in the last four years,” a friend told me later. I knew what he meant: Why was it that during the brunch, I could think only of how my interactions with other people at Harvard, beginning in that dining hall several years ago, had shaped me? Each person I saw during the meal contributed to a mental tally: How many friends would I leave college with? How many friends didn’t I make, but wished I had?

 

As a Christmas present this past year, my mom got me a page-a-day calendar of inspirational quotes from notable women. February 25 was a good day for my calendar. Susan B. Anthony was waiting for me with this:

Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.

It was perfect advice for a spring-semester senior, especially one who was just days away from submitting her thesis. I put the quotation up by my desk, the way I used to decorate my room at home. When I started to worry about Senior Week—Was I going to have fun? Would I be disappointed if events ran differently than I expected? Did I really want to attend a “last chance” dance?—I tried to keep the quote in mind. But it hasn’t been easy.

 

I want my waning days of college to wrap up cleanly; if these are supposed to be “the best four years of my life,” I want them to end with resolution. During Senior Week, I want long talks and the feeling of shared experience and the certainty of relationships that will endure even after the convenience of proximity is gone. And if this cannot be, then I want to spend the week on my own terms, avoiding events or situations that seem likely to encourage melodrama.

Most explicitly, what I want is to convince myself that I have exhausted college. I want to tally up my friends made, relationships had, lessons learned, and things experienced and call it my time at Harvard—done, over, successful enough. What I’m afraid of is that I’ll discover people I would like to have known, and things I should have done, right at the time I’m trying so hard to say good-bye. Yet when I talk to a sophomore who—on my last day of class!—reminds me that all the friends I made in college were also once strangers to me, or I go to a party and meet classmates for the first time, I realize that the familiar comfort of knowing my House, my interests, and my friends can also have the effect of stultifying my awareness of possibilities. But then I look around my room, or the Yard, or go about my day, and I realize how much I will miss this little life I have created for myself, bit by bit, as I made Harvard my own.

On some days, I feel ready to transition out of college: I go to my champagne brunch and I find ghosts. At other times, I wish to slow or postpone the process: I go to a party and meet new people and I have fun. And yet other times it’s hard to know quite what I’m feeling: I go to the Coop to find books to help me plan my future, and I’m simultaneously hankering for newness and already nostalgic for the four years that are about to come to a close.