John Harvard's Journal
My younger brother and I were raking grass off the driveway when the mailman arrived with my rejection letter from Harvard. It came in a parchment-yellow envelope—business size—bundled in the crease of a tractor catalog addressed to Our favorite neighbor.
I hadn’t anticipated a letter, having already received an e-mail with the very same, exciting news of my non-achievement one week earlier. Thinking, for the moment, that the stewards in admissions had changed their mind, or that perhaps they wanted to say they were “very, very sorry” again, I thought it better that I double-check this newly arrived hard copy. With careful fingers, I held the envelope up to the sun and squinted through to the boldface text: I am very sorry to inform you….
“Oh they’re just rubbing it in,” my brother told me.
Not getting into Harvard as a senior in high school was more disheartening than devastating, more mocking than moribund, for I’d never actually planned on going to an Ivy. “I’m just applying to Harvard for kicks and gigs,” I would tell my friends and family. And yet, as tends to happen post-rejection, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was somehow inadequate, that the neighbor’s snotty-nosed harp prodigy who had gotten into Yale was somehow better than I was. Ah well, at least the rejection gave me the peace of mind to do what I had been planning all along: go to film school.
“Film, huh?” my teachers would ask, muzzling their groans through pursed lips. Having kept my ambitions of directing and screenwriting from most people, this was a common response; after all, the valedictorian doesn’t usually go to film school, does he? Given my teachers’ worried expressions, I reassured them that I’d do it properly, that I’d go to school for it, that I was, in fact, talented, that I’d already been accepted to the very best film schools in the world, including the best of the best at the University of Southern California, so there was no need to worry. With their paralyzed blessing and a “no” from Harvard behind me, I could finally notify USC. I could finally commit to a college—for one year, anyway.
Transferring—not necessarily transferring to Harvard, just transferring in general—hadn’t occurred to me until a red-eye flight, heading home to Virginia after USC’s midsummer freshman pre-orientation. I sat by a screenwriter with a wine stain on his collar, who told me the horrible secret about Los Angeles.
“No one reads in Los Angeles,” he said.
I scribbled the fact on the corner of my book, committing it to print and memory. What did he mean they don’t read? How’s a city full of filmmakers supposed to make movies without books? I had brought a duffel bag full of novels with me to orientation, mostly hardcovers, stuffed between two pairs of jeans and an old Frisbee. I insisted upon the extra weight, having recently read an essay by Nick Hornby that said that Charles Dickens invented 13,000 characters in his lifetime. That’s one a day, every day for his entire working life, or a small town. Hornby said he could do so because he read so voraciously, which to me meant that if I was ever going to be as good a filmmaker as Dickens was a fictionist, I was going to need at least to double, maybe triple, my narrative intake. But would I be able to in a place so apparently unliterary as L.A.? I wondered. How do Didion and Ellroy get by? I recalled something else Hornby once wrote: “I can exclusively reveal that if you sit by a swimming pool in L.A., wearing swimming shorts and reading [a book], then Hollywood starlets leave you alone.” The observation was supposed to be a joke, of course, but now it terrified me; moving to L.A. terrified me. One of my professors said he felt the same way when he relocated to Los Angeles from the Northeast, like nothing was real.
“Give it a few years,” he said.
By January I was asking the same professor for a recommendation letter to transfer. It was still a precarious thought at the time—never for sure, always reversible—but it was something I’d been thinking about. I thought about how transferring meant abandoning my film career—or at least putting it on pause. I thought about how it would entail facing all the told-you-so’ers who’d haughtily bitten their thumbs at my decision to go to film school in the first place. I thought about how I’d have to justify myself to everyone who asked: If filmmaking is my passion, my calling, my raison d’être, the thing I do well, the thing that drives me mad, the thing that keeps me sane, the thing I’d wrestle the devil for, then why in the hell would I want to abandon it? Because I wasn’t ready for it.
I arrived at USC as starry-eyed as the rest of the film kids, but the more time I spent there, the more I realized that I was forfeiting my undergraduate education in favor of a glib professional program. I wasn’t ready for my filmmaking career to start. I wasn’t even sure if it was the career I wanted. Perhaps it is; I still don’t know. The only thing I could be certain of was my uncertainty. Either way I wasn’t going to put a consigning “career decision” in the dumb, sentimental hands of my 18-year-old self.
I sent out seven transfer applications in February 2011, and on May 6, 2011, 10 days before the end of my freshman year at USC, I was accepted to Harvard. I had again applied for kicks and gigs—doubly so this time, knowing that transferring was near impossible: in 2008 and 2009, the College hadn’t accepted any transfer students. (Interestingly, for those two years, it was the only “Top 50” four-year college in the country, other than Princeton, that didn’t have a transfer program; Princeton still doesn’t.) But 13 of us were accepted my year, from a pool of 1, 486 applicants (an acceptance rate of 0.87 percent, which, it turns out, was roughly one-tenth the rate at which I was first rejected).
It’s strange to think about, with graduation only six months away: what did the admissions officers see in me that they didn’t see in the other 1, 473 applicants? Have I done what they hoped I would do? Do they regret their choice in the same way I regretted USC? Will it be too cheeky for me to hang my Harvard rejection letter next to my Harvard diploma, as if to say, “Behold my second chance!”? I’m not sure what I did in the one year I was at USC that made me a more viable candidate for Harvard, but whatever it was, I’m glad as hell I did it.
Don’t get me wrong; being a transfer student at Harvard is no cakewalk. The housing system floats and isolates those who know no one. For my first semester I socialized almost exclusively with the other transfers—one junior and a dozen sophomores—many of whom I remain close to today. My transfer background was also for the longest time a crutch in all introductions: “My name is Noah and I’m a transfer student…yes, Harvard takes transfers…USC…not South Carolina….” I caught a break socially when, at the start of my junior year, I was able to move from Dunster to Winthrop, where another transfer and I were “adopted” by a blocking group we’d gradually grown close to. I joined the Crimson, the Advocate. I did everything a Harvard student is supposed to do.
These days I seldom feel like a transfer. Lacking only the awkward run-ins with freshman-year hook-ups and a working knowledge of Yard dorms, I feel much like everyone else—perhaps, though, with a lighter step and a bit more perspective. Now and then, someone still mistakes me as being from California. More often, someone cursing the Cambridge winters will ask me why I’d ever leave the Los Angeles sunshine, the California girls, the downtown parties, Trojan football, film school. Only then do I recollect, and joke, “Dude, I know I messed up big time, right?” Truth is, though, I prefer it here. I prefer the occasional overcast, the kettlesful of split-pea soup in the dining halls, the underlit dorm parties that end at 2 a.m. on Fridays, the dozen and a half novels I’ve checked out of Lamont for “pleasure.” For God knows what reason, I prefer this place; I’m cohesive here.
Do I miss USC? Perhaps perfunctorily, in its parts and pieces: my friends, certainly; the USC Song Girls, their red and gold costumes falling just below the buttocks, tapping and beckoning as the Trojan band belts out John Williams; the rows of football players in pearl jerseys; the glamorous girls with their calico skirts and Vuitton bags and blond hair that rises to a slight peak and then falls in sunflower petals; the clean-cut boys in their pleated pants and unfaded black jeans, the rose-tinted Vuarnets over each and every wealthy fizzog, oblivious to the fact that their city is only a refraction of America brought gently down to earth. Sure, few people there actually read books, but at least the place was ripe with friends and characters. (Dickens would have a field day, anyway.)
I’ve only visited the school once since I left—for a few weeks last J-term. It was fun to go back, of course, but what was more satisfying was to guess at the life I would’ve lived had I stayed. I’d have joined a fraternity and wasted time. Certainly, I’d have kept on with the film stuff and most likely have felt perpetually limited. I’d be happy, I imagine. I hope I’d still be reading.