The Undergraduate: Learning Space

I maintain that the foremost reward for returning to Harvard as a senior is to walk through campus knowing where the trashcans are. Forget theses and job searches and the social petri dish. It’s the small victories that are strongest. Being able to absentmindedly deposit an apple core or a muffin wrapper during the half-jog to morning lecture—this is a peculiar, important kind of wisdom.

The locations of water fountains and restrooms are similarly significant. An increased awareness of this information equates to a decrease in mental gymnastics. By this I mean: if I make a quick pit stop now, will I be late to my meeting with the professor whose mustache is bigger than his mouth?—and other exhausting calculations. With every year spent on campus, life becomes a bit easier. Knowledge accumulates, and not just the textbook kind. What was, during your freshman fall, a landslide of new information, has long settled into a gravelly pile. You find yourself on stable ground with a familiar view. You find familiar is a good place to be.

It’s these small anchors that make a larger-than-life institution into a livable world. They bring this school down to scale. But for me, particularly, these anchors have been necessary to steal Harvard away from my father. From my birth to the end of my sophomore year, he worked in a small white Harvard office across the street from the Radcliffe Quad. He is an astrophysicist. He spent his days looking at grainy images of the universe I can’t comprehend, taking walks around the Quad on his lunch break.

It’s Harvard that brought my parents to our suburban Boston home, and Harvard that kept us here through my first 18 years. I have memories of the Square and the University scrambled throughout childhood. My father taking me to Widener Library for the first time and ushering me through those silent swinging doors into the stark light of Loker Reading Room. The two of us trying to name every species of animal etched into the brick of the Bio Labs building. The calm street view from his office, where his primary companions were a series of large gray filing cabinets and a potted vine that seemed taller than I was. Looking through children’s books at the Coop, getting ice cream at Lizzy’s, and marveling at the wonders of the old Curious George Store.

All this led to an inordinate sense of concern at the start of my freshman year. How could I possibly “do adulthood” in a place that knew me so deeply as a child? It was a 30-minute drive to our family home and a 15-minute walk from the Yard to my father’s office. I resolved that if I could not increase the distance physically, I would do so mentally. I swore off visits home until Thanksgiving break, while my parents rolled their eyes. They let me declare my oaths of independence. They did not worry. I made it only until Halloween.

I am calmer these days. What’s changed in three years is my knowledge of trashcans. It is the confidence that comes with a sense of possession. I am filled with gratitude every morning when I go to find my toothpaste behind the bathroom mirror, every time I climb the gray slate stairs to my suite. I am thinking of how we, my roommates and I, have christened these bare white and linoleum rooms with ourselves. With every small routine, we make them a place where we have lived. We make them sacred space.

The daily act of living is what makes this campus ours. There are plenty of historical markers to be found on gates and buildings, but I often wonder what Harvard would look like if dotted with smaller memorials: Phoebe liked to sit here after her 1 p.m. math lecture and worry through her problem sets. This low-slung couch is where Eli napped between classes. Once, Max and Anna had an hour-long conversation in this hallway and never spoke again, but they both remember everything that was said and sometimes daydream about the moment.

Ten years before he began working at Harvard, my father left China for the United States to become a graduate student at Boston University. He rented a room in a large Victorian home just past Harvard Law School. It was 1983. His letters to my mother took three weeks to arrive, and he scheduled phone calls with his parents a month in advance. He still likes to recount how one particularly long cross-Pacific discussion cost his brother an entire month’s salary. To keep up with news from home, he would ride his bike over to Yenching Library, on Oxford Street, to sit in the reading room and scan the Chinese newspapers that had made the same long journey as he had.

I am particularly stuck on this image of him, stolen from old photographs: age 23, oversized square glasses set on a square face, a sweep of black hair, and cheekbones that jut out just enough to say, yes, he is skinnier than he should be. Khakis, legs pumping as he pedals from that Victorian to Yenching Library. Riding his bike through the same streets where much of the next three decades of his life would play out. I imagine him haunted—though I know he was not—by the many ghosts of what was yet to come.

Indulging in secondhand nostalgia, I made a trip to Yenching Library last semester to sit in the reading room myself. I’d taken several finals in the building’s creaky auditorium, with its tiny wooden desks too small to fit an exam book on. Yet after five semesters, I had never seen the library itself, with its dark wooden tables and magazine racks. The kindly man at the front desk informed me, when asked, that it was no longer open to the public and had not been for a long time.

Sometimes, when school is out, I miss Harvard. I’ll meditate on the image of Eliot House dining hall, and the red oriental carpet in my dorm room that I scoured Craigslist to find. While at home, I get homesick for this bizarre place, a small contained space where anything seems possible, and I hardly have to walk to reach outward. There is now a version of myself that is more at home here than anywhere else and knows where all the trashcans are. I know there is a version of my father that feels this way, too. We are stacked, like ancient cities, each iteration built upon the foundations of that which came before.

There’s a new resolution that has been on my mind lately: if you are comfortable in a place, it is about time to leave. I think it might be a useful maxim, at least while young. But for now, I am taking pleasure in ghosts. I am remembering, with love, all the college days I have lived between the Charles River and Oxford Street. The morning before fall classes began, I ran into a longtime resident tutor in Eliot dining hall. He asked how I was doing, with genuine curiosity. I told him I was appreciating the senior-year feeling of knowing where everything is. “Enjoy,” he responded. “You’ve earned it.”  

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Melanie Wang ’15 recommends a trip to Lizzy’s Ice Cream for the Charles River Crunch.

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