We Will Go Home Again
San Diego has been my home for all my life. But when I came to Harvard, I didn't think that I would ever return to a home west of the Mississippi. Enchanted by dreams of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the hundreds of other New Englanders whose words fill our literary anthologies, I was convinced I was a transplanted Easterner. I didn't even apply to colleges in California. I thought that coming to Harvard would be a coming home.
In many senses, including the intellectual, it has been. Boston has more bookstores than San Diego will ever dream of supporting. Cambridge is steeped in history, so much so that every time I walk down Garden Street I notice a new commemorative plaque. This is a society accustomed to occupying the center of things--"the hub," as Professor John Stilgoe told the Class of 1997 during our orientation week four years ago.
And there is no greater hub than Harvard, through which the world's most prominent citizens routinely pass. Harvard's library system offers unparalleled facilities for browsing and research. Walking through Harvard Square on a balmy evening, listening to street musicians and observing the variety of people, it is hard to imagine what more one could want.
Some people love Harvard so much that they stay here forever--deans, professors and house masters. Their dedication to this place is extraordinary. They have seen thousands of students pass through Tercentenary Theatre each June and have advised many of them in office hours. They attend home football games. They sit on the steps of University Hall and say hello on sunny days. People like them, repositories of Harvard lore, are necessary for our university to keep hold of its traditions.
Yet most of the graduating seniors sitting under the trees of Tercentenary Theatre today--trees that, as poet John Ashbery '49 observed, try to tell us what we are--will not remain in Cambridge. A few will stay for graduate school and then move on; a few will take jobs in the area and then move away; and a great number of us will say our farewells today.
Like many of my classmates, I have been tempted to linger. Harvard is an idyllic world, blessed with stately architecture, brilliant mind, and quiet optimism. But then I think of California, and the familiar streets near my house, and the sun blinking off the ocean, and the grandeur of the Central Valley's grain fields, and everything else I love about that land out west. And I realize that what I thought was a coming home to Harvard was in fact an exploration: the kind T.S. Eliot '09 describes in his "Four Quartets" when he writes: "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time."
I like to believe Eliot was thinking of Harvard when he wrote these lines. For that is Harvard's function: to give us the license to explore, for a heady four years, the boundaries of knowledge in one hub of the universe. And then to let us return where we came from, ready to share what we have learned.
As I was growing up, when I thought about Harvard, I thought of my father, class of 1958. He was not your typical Harvard man of the 1950s. A poor boy from a working-class community in San Diego, he applied only because a wise counselor suggested it. More than 40 years later, he still tells about the day the letter of admission arrived. My grandfather, a house painter, ran to the high school, letter in hand. My father opened it to find he would be spending the next four years in Cambridge. (He also found out later that my grandfather had steamed open the letter before taking it to school.) Going to Harvard shaped his life and opened many doors. But it did not budge him from San Diego, and it did not dissuade him from becoming a high school history teacher.
What I learned from my father's example, and my English teacher mother's as well, is that greatness comes in small, local actions. It can and often does emerge in grand settings: Harvard routinely sends its students to the tops of Fortune 500 companies and to the heads of legislatures. But for most of us, our impact will come in our communities, and for many of us, those communities will be located near where we grew up.
We will return to serve on religious boards, to head city planning commissions, sit on the bench, flip pancakes at school breakfasts and raise children. We will return, sometimes in spite of the best-laid plans, because we wonder who will act if we do not. We will think of how our communities could benefit from the liberal education we have received. And we will know that we have a responsibility to give back to the towns that raised us.
All this has changed my initial reluctance to return home. Although I may not settle in San Diego, I will move somewhere nearby, ready to make good on the unfulfilled promise of California. I know many of my classmates are also returning to their home states and hometowns, armed with the experience Harvard has given us. I hope we spend time in our public libraries and neighborhood bookstores. I hope we take our children to the park on Sundays. And I hope that, in the process, we continue to watch for the potential of the familiar--to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
Sarah J. Schaffer '97 of San Diego, CA and Currier House, was editorial chair of The Crimson in 1996.