Ivory Tower Blues

A Senior's Search for Self From the Steps of Widener

This is one of those vivid memories that you make, keep and then don't know what to do with: walking back form some busy, chatty evening function during Freshman Week 1990 (yes, they called us "freshmen" then), I looked up and for the first time saw Widener illuminated by floodlights.

It wasn't just the beauty of the sight but the contrast form what had gone before that struck me. Somehow, Widener seemed profound, and so different from the mindless hi-I'm-Jacques-from-Podunk freshman blather. I headed toward the Widener steps and began climbing; the buzz of freshmen melted away.

At the top, I stood alone, bathed in white light, arms crossed, surveying the landscape. There wasn't anyone else in the Yard, and I was overcome with delusions of grandeur--like Columbus discovering the "new world," like all this was mine and nobody else's.

That lasted about 30 seconds. Then a breeze picked up, and I began to feel chilly (and alone). As nonchanntly as I could, I skipped down the stairs and headed toward my dorm.

It would be hard to make it through Freshman Week at Harvard without feeling that strange contrast--the desperate search for companionship and egotism run riot. It's like, I'm the greatest...wouldn't it be nice to have someone to share that with?

Soon, for most of us, the loneliness is somewhat relieved, and the frenzied friend-making abates. It doesn't take much-- a few people from the entry way who don't have anything better to do than go see "The Big Chill" (or worse, Freshman Comedy Night)--and an end comes to the first week's embarrassing displays of plumage.

Later, when it becomes a chore to say "hi" to all those people you so wantonly threw yourself at during Freshman Week, you know you've settled in. Oh, the inner loneliness is still there, but it's covered over and loses its absolute rule over your life.

It could be logical to settle for a breastplate of tin foil over an empty heart. One could argue that we are here for one purpose only: to work--and more precisely, to prove to the world that I, former king of Podunk high, am the next Albert Einstein, Thomas Aquinas and Arturo Toscanini all wrapped up in one.

But it is clear that almost all of us are quickly disabused of such notions. Harvard is a place of shattered dreams, of disappointment and disillusionment, a place where the best minds meet in an endless demolition derby, where no one leaves unscathed. We find our limits, or if we're too immature to recognize defeat, we go to grad school.

And yet, though we learn that we are not Albert T.A. Toscanini, we do not respond by opening ourselves up to companionship, filling the inner loneliness. Instead, we come to this strange, seemingly utility-minimizing equilibrium of a lack of faith in ourselves and a lack of feeling for others.

And the typical response when things get bad is to flick on Letterman (or, heaven forbid, Conan O'Brien '85).

At the end of high school, we were anxious to prove ourselves on a bigger stage. Now, at the end of college, the critics have spoken: we're just a bunch of poor players.

Is this what they call maturity? If so, I don't want to grow up. Maybe there's a position opening up in the investment banking arm of Toys 'R Us.

Most of us seniors have some sort of plan for next year. Hoping against hope that money will cleanse the conscience, more than a few are going to be investment bankers and consultants. Others are continuing on to medical or law school, undoubtedly because they sense America's desperate need for more doctors and lawyers. Others are "taking a year off," whatever that means (more Letterman, I guess). Still others, like me, are heading off to Ph.D.-land, a place to which many go but form which few return.

I guess we're excited about reaching a new stage in our lives. I guess we're eager to learn new things, meet new people and (except for the future academics, anyway) earn a license to print money.

But the most common sentiments I find (among the Class of '94, anyway) are regret, doubt and the overwhelming desire to "get out of this place" which we once had such an overwhelming desire to get into. The spirit that gripped us during Freshman Week 1990 seems as good as dead.

Nearly four years have passed since 1 climbed the Widener steps and surveyed the Yard as Napoleon might have surveyed Austerlitz, or Waterloo Today, it's embarrassing--but a sweet embarrassment--to recall that former me.

For all his puffed-up self-importance, that recently dethroned king of Podunk High had a light inside of him, which encouraged him to be bold, to think big, to take chances and to win.

Maybe I should climb those floodlit Widener steps again. Not in order to look backward or recapture what was, but to look forward and conceive of what still can be.

Regression? Perhaps. But next time I climb those steps, I promise I won't climb them alone.

Jacques E. C. Hymans '94 will attend the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences as a Ph. D. candidate in government, starting in the fall.