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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Lines of Support

March-April 2013


Illustration by Justin Gabbard

I always use the same stall in the women’s bathroom near the superintendent’s office on the first floor of Adams House—the last one on the right. It’s strange to feel such an attachment, but I stop by most afternoons, before leaving for class or returning to my room. It’s not always convenient, more a habit of choice. If the stall is occupied, sometimes I wait.

The conversations are what keep me coming back, penned on the wooden door in blues, blacks, and greens. At times, it can be weeks before there is something new to read. I enjoy the wit that neighbors the poignant, try to think of a response and what words I would use. By now, I could recite the stall door like lyrics, if ever that topic of conversation came up. There is a community there, in the four- by three-foot space—periodically whitewashed only to be written again.

My sophomore year, this was the support I found. Between frustrations that went unsaid and disappointments that remained unshared, I looked for meaningful conversation, something other than discussions of lack of time and sleep. Tutors, advisers, and administrators offered guidance and support. They reached out and I didn’t reach back. They provided a starting point for the conversation I sought, and I turned my head and continued my search.

After a semester of solitude, I happened to use that stall in Adams House and read the only words on a freshly painted door: “I feel so alone.” For once, I did not.

I became a peer advising fellow (PAF) my junior year. Paired with nine freshmen in an entryway of 23, I worked with two other PAFs and the entryway proctor to help our advisees transition to Harvard life. My students and I met to discuss academics and roommates, social clubs and extracurricular activities. At times, the conversation felt more like an interview; I questioned them about the essay due later that week, the midterm for which they had not begun to study—most importantly, their sleep. More often that not, the tone of our meetings was closer to that of coffee between friends.

Always, however, the inevitable questions—“How are you so calm? How do you do so much and still have it all together? You do so many things. How?”—were part of their response. I did my best to convince them otherwise: “I have a paper due tomorrow that I haven’t started yet. I’m telling you to sleep more but I have my mom telling that to me.” They did their best to seem convinced.

That’s the challenge of being a PAF, to set an example while admitting to your faults. Too well balanced, and you set a standard that is impossible. Too clearly struggling, and what standard have you set? I became a PAF in the hope of giving back, to attempt to help students in the way that I had previously refused to be helped. I wanted to show that “effortless perfection” was the exception and not the norm, that you could be struggling to keep up and be happy, too. I wanted to set a standard and break it again and again.

And so we met for coffee or early-morning breakfasts. My co-PAFs and I threw weekly study breaks in the dorm, insisted that it was okay to take 30 minutes away from an unfinished paper due in an hour or two. We listened to talk of course-stress and homesickness, all the while attempting to admit to pressures of our own. In the worst periods, in the depths of a “midterm season” that lasts from the third week of the semester until the end, my happiness—genuine or otherwise—was stored up for those few hours each week. I thought I was smiling for them, showing that happiness is possible at Harvard, even during the times I felt it was not.

During the last week of classes in December—two weeks before exams—I entered my proctors’ room before study break, getting ready to go downstairs with bowls and food. I had spent the afternoon editing articles for The Crimson and attending meetings—with class somewhere in between. One proctor asked about my week, checking in as is his habit after two years of working together and many more years of working with students.

“I’m okay,” I said, before thinking. I was worried about impending deadlines, thesis interviews. I hadn’t taken time to pause. To breathe. I knew I was lacking sleep. After a week of checking in with my advisees, it was the first time someone had checked in with me. I stopped. The week caught up. “Actually, I’m not.” I cried, tried not to. “It’s okay. I’ll be all right. It’s almost 9:30, we should get downstairs.” He held the door, and we agreed to meet to talk later that week.

Downstairs, in the common room, we made fruit cobbler and wrote postcards to send home. Our freshmen were worried about Expos and final exams, leaving for break and being on their own. As a senior, I listened to excited talk of their first semester, and could think only of the remaining seven that would soon come to a close. I gave advice that I had implemented for three-and-a-half years (When you’re working, work—when you’re playing, don’t. Never regret doing one of the two.), and some that I, too, had yet to master. (Schedules will help. Make a routine. Don’t wait until the last minute and realize you have too much to do.)

I thought I was helping them, somehow easing the transition into 25-page term papers and three-hour final exams. That was what I was there for—four years in, I was an example, both of what to and not to do.

It had started snowing that night in Cambridge, one of those first dustings that leaves only an inch for the next day’s warmer rain and weather to consume. I hadn’t noticed as I walked along Mass. Ave. before the study break, head down, thinking of other things. And even after two hours with my advisees, urging them to “take pause,” breathe, I didn’t take the long way back to my dorm from Canaday—via the steps of Widener, where I could turn and take in the Yard—instead, continuing straight through.

But I did watch the start of a freshman snowball fight as I passed, walking faster than I might have, though slower than before. Even with my head buried a bit too far down, I thought of the study break, and looked up when I remembered to. Part of the anxiety had lessened—two hours of advice-giving had not been a purely altruistic pursuit.

I thought about my advisees and the question about doing everything, having it all together, too. “Sometimes,” I had replied, “the best you can manage is happiness and hope that the papers, work, and meetings will come through.” It hadn’t taken Harvard long to teach me this lesson, though I hadn’t said it out loud before. I had said it for my freshmen, but now realized that I needed to hear it again, too: “Sometimes, that’s the best you can manage. And, when you can’t, it’s always better to say something, to admit to it, than not to.”

One semester, I was concerned about a hard-to-track-down advisee. For two months, we had found it nearly impossible to meet. Finally, we scheduled an early-morning breakfast where my questions were met with half-answers; I reached out and waited for the student across the table to reach back. I said I was there if ever anything was needed. “Everything’s fine,” is what I was told. I left the meeting frustrated. It felt far-removed from other mornings, coffees, meetings when I had done the same as my advisee, refusing a hand to hold.

There are more comments on the stall door this year than before—in defiance of the whitewash or because of more returners like me. None of us stay long when we come; there are no faces or names to the ink on the door. I like to think that we’re a community made stable by our inconstancy.

For a time, it was the only place at Harvard where I admitted defeat—gave support and sought some, too. Knowing that I had company who could be anyone had brought comfort to me. Gradually, I built similar support systems outside the stall. Though I never considered the writing on the wooden door an act of hiding from one’s faults, I learned that it could feel empowering to admit difficulty. Pause. Talk. Start over. Try again. Through my conversations as a peer advising fellow, I constantly remind and am reminded to do just that.

My favorite line in the stall references the reader. (Most others address the self.) It responds to an assertion in sharp, black ink: “This might be the closest you and I will ever be.” At Harvard, we learn to seek out and build communities. At best, we remember to look up, our heads less buried than before, both to listen and to share. With help, we learn to admit our imperfections, teach each other, and not feel so alone.

Yet there is an isolation in this mutuality, a segregation inherent in our pursuits. Even so, we come together when we allow others to enter our space, the confines of our three-by-four. We are brought closer by the support lines we accept, the inadequacies we permit others to see. If we succeed, here, at Harvard, this might truly be the closest you and I will ever be.

Under that sharp black line, there is a challenge in faded blue: “or the farthest apart.” 

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