A “Romper Room” Diploma

President Claudine Gay’s first semester-opening Morning Prayers

Claudine Gay at the podium

Claudine Gay, speaking at Morning Prayers for the first time as president
PHOTOGRAPH BY JS/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Speaking at Memorial Church’s semester-opening Morning Prayers today for the first time as Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay continued to tell members of the University community about their new leader. In so doing, she added to the personal details in her remarks last December 15, when her election was announced (portraying herself as a “first-year graduate student, moving into Haskins Hall, lugging the things that seemed most essential to my success at the time: a futon, a Mac Classic II, and a cast iron skillet for frying plantains”—a child of migrants now attending Harvard). She also built upon the lesson she shared with members of the class of 2027 at their convocation on September 4: about making sense of the name given a child by her parents, and then making a name for herself—as each new undergraduate has now begun to do.

Her “first day of school” lesson this morning was built upon a story that “almost no one knows”: her “very brief career in reality television”—as a participant in Romper Room—where, at age five, in August 1975, she was among the “preschool-aged children singing songs, playing games, and learning lessons with the help of a cheerful and compassionate teacher,” and absorbing good manners from the bumblebee character, Mr. Do-Bee.

Things got off to a good start, Gay recalled: “I could sing songs; I could play games; I could learn lessons. And thanks to my parents, my manners were impeccable—for a five-year-old, of course.”

But then the curiosity that would later impel her academic career put in an early appearance, as the program’s puppet show began, and her inquisitive younger self simply had to know what was going on behind the scenes:

How were these things moving? What was happening back there—beyond the curtains? What wasn’t I seeing? I began to wriggle in my seat. Eventually, I left my seat and went backstage. My cheerful and compassionate teacher intervened. I was returned to my seat—I was returned to my seat again—and again, and again.

Even unscripted local television has its limits. With good humor—and, truly, no hard feelings—I was ejected from Romper Room.

Her first expulsion!

These memories came back, Gay explained, as she sorted through her mother’s belongings: Claudette Gay died on May 24, the day before the Commencement at which her daughter would be introduced to Harvard’s biggest annual gathering as president-elect. One find: Claudine Gay’s Romper Room diploma, evidence that she was—evidence to the contrary—“at all times, ‘a Good Do Bee.’”

That she appeared on the program, Gay continued, “is also evidence of my mother’s belonging”:

I think of her—an immigrant woman, only eight years into her life in the United States, a young mother—navigating an unfamiliar landscape for the sake of an opportunity for her daughter. I think of the time and effort she must have devoted to getting me on that show in the first place. And I think of her pride and her joy in her achievement—and in my achievement.

Certainly, that is a message that parents of new students could understand, and perhaps the students themselves. In sharing it on this occasion—“my ‘first day of school’ without my mother,” as Gay described it—she celebrated that great parenting, and also hoped to enable her audience to “come to know me better”: someone who is a certifiable “good do bee,” and who hopes to be “a great colleague to all and a great leader for all.” Her path to the present role, she said, was “[p]ropelled by belief in the power of education, the power of curiosity and ideas, the power of attentive and industrious work—instilled in me by my mother and father, nurtured in me by my teachers and my mentors.”

As for new members of the community, she closed with a welcome and a challenge:

When I helped at Move-In Day last week, I loved seeing families who had never set foot on our campus before, who had never really been here—or anywhere like here. I loved seeing parents and siblings sporting Harvard t-shirts and hats, brimming with pride and joy at their newfound association with this place and all that it means in the world. I thought about those belongings—about their belonging—and it reminded me of just how much our work and this place matter for more lives than we can count.

Harvard is not just for her students, not just for the people who are fortunate enough to be considered members of our community. Our reach, our embrace, our obligation is wider than that—and can and should be wider still.

Each of us has a hand in deepening the connection between our mission and our society. That connection is what matters to me. And every year brings fresh opportunity to renew that commitment.

With that inspiration, it was time for a final welcome to the new semester: let the learning begin.

 

My Brief Career in Reality Television

(President Gay’s text, as prepared for delivery)

Ever since I took office, people have been curious about who I am. Not in the usual ways—not in the ways a CV could communicate the arcs and contours of an academic career—not in the ways a biographical sketch could fill in the blanks. People are curious about who I am. How did I get here? What matters to me?

Because you are here this morning, I want to tell you something that almost no one knows.

I want to tell you about my brief career in reality television.

Now, when this happened, it wasn’t yet called reality television. It was called Romper Room. The premise, if you are unfamiliar with the program, was simple: preschool-aged children singing songs, playing games, and learning lessons with the help of a cheerful and compassionate teacher. There was also a bumblebee, Mr. Do-Bee, who modeled good manners. For forty-one years—yes, forty-one years!—this program enchanted young learners across the United States.

It was August 1975. I had just turned five and was excited to soon be heading to kindergarten. My family lived in Savannah, Georgia, at the time, and my mother—somehow—had landed me a spot on Romper Room. We arrived at the local television station, and I took my place with the other children.

Things got off to a good start. I could sing songs; I could play games; I could learn lessons. And my manners were impeccable—for a five-year-old, of course.

Then the puppet show began.

At first, I was enthralled, sitting still as a story unfolded before me, but my curiosity soon begged questions. How were these things moving? What was happening back there—beyond the curtains? What wasn’t I seeing? I began to wriggle in my seat. I left my seat and went backstage. My cheerful and compassionate teacher intervened. I was returned to my seat—I was returned to my seat again—and again.

Even unscripted local television has its limits. With good humor—and, truly, no hard feelings—I was ejected from Romper Room.

I had forgotten much of this episode until earlier this year. My mother, Claudette Gay, passed away just before Commencement. Soon after, I found myself sorting through things that she had saved over the course of her life. I found tucked among her papers my Romper Room diploma, affirming that I was, and I quote, “at all times, ‘a Good Do Bee.’”

This object is one of my mother’s belongings. This object is also evidence of my mother’s belonging. I think of her—an immigrant woman, only eight years into her life in the United States, a young mother—navigating an unfamiliar landscape for the sake of an opportunity for her daughter. I think of the time and effort she must have devoted to getting me on that show in the first place. And I think of her pride and her joy in her achievement—and in my achievement.

This is my first “first day of school” without my mother. I share her with you to celebrate her—and so that you may come to know me better.

So, who am I? Obviously—and you can read it right here—I am a good do bee. And I hope to be a great colleague to all and a great leader for all.

How did I get here? Propelled by belief in the power of education, the power of curiosity and ideas, the power of attentive and industrious work—instilled in me by my mother and father, nurtured in me by my teachers and my mentors.

When I helped at Move-In Day last week, I loved seeing families who had never set foot on our campus, who had never really been here—or anywhere like here—before. I loved seeing parents and siblings sporting Harvard t-shirts and hats, brimming with pride and joy at their newfound association with this place and all that it means in the world. I thought about those belongings—about their belonging—and it reminded me of how much our work and this place matter for more lives than we can count.

Harvard is not just for her students, not just for the people who are fortunate enough to be considered members of our community. Our reach, our embrace, our obligation is wider than that—and can and should be wider still.

Each of us has a hand in deepening the connection between our mission and our society. That connection is what matters to me. And every year brings fresh opportunity to renew that commitment.

Thank you for joining me today. Welcome to the “first day of school.” Welcome to a new semester.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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