Harvard experience

August 4th, 2008 — Wordman

I’ve made oblique references to my education before, but today calls for a slightly more specific recollection of one event that seemed to sum up what being at my college was like.

Graduation covers several days, with various events all over the place. Most are outside. In June. In Boston. So, everyone sweats a lot but pretends not to notice. The events are only tangentially related to the graduates, existing more to serve misplaced nostalgia and university status. (As an example, the main ceremony for undergraduates features a humorous Latin oration, for which the students are given are translation, but the spectators are not, allowing the university to look great as the students laugh at all the right moments.) Yet, completely as a side-effect, these events turn out to be pretty fun, even for someone who normally hates that kind of thing, because they connect people in a weird way. Generations reunite and connect with others. You reconnect with people you sort of lost track of along the way. One of them, maybe, goes on to become your wife. All these sort of funky people of all stripes gather and, importantly, drink. In the heat.

The event that prompts this post, though, came the day before the actual graduation, something called Class Day. This day is marked by gatherings that are decidedly less formal than others, with humorous speeches and so on. Weather was particularly good that day, sunny, but not too humid, so the largest of these events was well attended, though there were a scattering of empty seats in most rows. People tended to be in clumps within rows, couples, groups of friends, parents with their children, with stray seats between them. I sat next to my friend LG and we made whispered commentary on the events of the day (about which I remember nearly nothing). In front of us was this cute old guy, sitting alone, quietly watching the ceremonies. I didn’t pay him much mind.

As we were leaving, LG whispered to me, pointing to the old guy “Look.” I looked. I saw the same smiling old guy. She continued “that’s Solzhenitsyn.”

Something weird happens to you (or, at least, to me) in a situation like this. It’s a mental shift that feels in your brain a lot like a dolly zoom, that shot in a movie where the camera zooms out while approaching the actor, leaving the actor the same size in the frame, but bending the perspective on the the scenery. Looking again, I saw the same smiling old guy but, knowing he has seen and done more in his life than I ever will or would care to (soldier, labor camp, literary giant, Nobel Prize), he seemed different, disconnected from the rest of the crowd somehow. He might as well have had a halo.

It wasn’t quite a satori moment (I’ve only ever had one of those, a couple years earlier), but it crystallized a number of things for me. One was that you never really know who is around you; that crazy guy on the train may be the greatest mind the world has ever seen. Another was that enthusiastically realizing the innocuous person next to you had done, was doing or would do great things that you wouldn’t was a constant experience at school, and may be the entire point of the Ivy League. (As a very minor example, I point to LG’s near-supernatural ability to even recognize Solzhenitsyn. Could you do that?) And lastly, the realization that even if I gain worldwide fame, even if I change the world, no matter how many might know my name, eventually I’ll just be an old guy in a park.

I hope that I’m smiling as much as you were, Mr. Solzhenitsyn.