There's No Place Like School

A year ago, I was a field organizer for the highly successful, people-powered campaign of the next President of the United States, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. What a difference a year makes.

It all started thirteen years ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My parents have always been “activists.” For most of my life they have worked, in one capacity or another, for labor unions and the workers who join them. Thirteen years ago, they took me to my first picket line. The strikers I walked with won their struggle, and ever since, I have been, as my parents would say, “In The Movement.”

The Movement is a funny thing to join. It doesn’t have any official members. It doesn’t have a clubhouse or even a union hall. In high school, being in the Movement meant arguing for gay rights at school board meetings, working for labor unions in the summer and taking a train to Philadelphia to protest the Republican National Convention and getting run over by nearsighted bike cops. The Movement became my motivation. I wasn’t the kind of blind ideologue you see screaming and cussing at city council meetings or Bush speeches. I chose The Movement the way some of my classmates decided to become doctors. It seemed like a good and valuable way to spend my life.

When I got to Harvard, school seemed like a good way to stay in The Movement. I could learn about public policy, study how the political system works and do a little campus activism to tide me over until graduation. Maybe it’s just the people I know, but I think a lot of people look at Harvard the way I did. They may not be motivated by politics and activism the way I am, but they see Harvard as a tool, a path to something else, whether that something else is medical school, an I-banking job or a more humane world.

I enjoyed my first year at school, but Harvard seemed like an imperfect tool. I learned about public policy and politics; I even participated in my share of campus activism. But I was torn. I liked to party. I liked to make midnight trips to the Kong and play roller hockey in the hallway of my dorm. Harvard offered millions of opportunities to be part of The Movement, and I felt guilty when I turned down one of those opportunities to enjoy the pleasant distractions of college life.

The Dean campaign was my chance to immerse myself in The Movement. When I decided to take a semester off, I was looking forward to fully devoting myself to a cause, without the distractions of college life. It is difficult to explain the way a campaign takes over your life. It’s not just the 15-hour days (which tend to become 18 or 20-hour days by the end). It’s not just the lack of days off, or the fact that you rarely know anybody outside of the campaign. You get so caught up in the excitement of the campaign that it becomes your entire reason for being. Every interaction—from ordering a burger to waving to another driver on the street—becomes part of the campaign. You start to check out girls on the street and think: “Damn! I’ll bet she’d be a really effective canvasser.”

The Dean campaign, as some of the Governor’s detractors have pointed out, was more intense than most. None of us came for a nice, stable job. None of us came because Dean seemed like a safe bet. When most of our New Hampshire staff signed on, the press agreed that Dean would be the Democratic nominee right after the Red Sox won the World Series and Ann Coulter won the First Annual Hell-Wide Snowball Fight. The Dean campaign was all about the love. It was The Movement.

In many ways, the Dean campaign was a quintessential Harvard experience. So many Harvard students find their purpose in the clubs that sprout up every year on our campus or in the life aspirations that they formed long before they got to Cambridge. So many think of themselves as activists (or premeds or future businessmen) before they think of themselves as students. College life—everything from late night discussions with roommates to pissing on John Harvard’s foot—can seem like a distraction. Harvard often feels like a bus station, filled with brilliant people on their way somewhere else, too restless to enjoy where they are. The Dean campaign was my way of getting where I was going before I finished school. I got to strip away the distractions of being a student and be who I thought I was: an activist, pure and simple.

Even when I got back to school last semester, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should be out in the “real world,” fighting for something. I was back at Harvard, but I still felt like I was on the campaign. I wrote papers on the Dean campaign; I tried to live through my friends who were still on the campaign; and I still thought of myself as an activist, not a student.

But The Movement is not all there is. I still believe people my age should be involved in politics. I plan to spend my fall working to get rid of George W. Bush. But I have two and a half more years at this place, and I want to enjoy them. I want to experience college life in all its beer-stained, sleep-deprived, grease-soaked glory. I want to look at my friends as friends, not potential allies. I want to go to parties to dance and drink (coffee, of course) and meet people, not to find future comrades or plot strategy for the next action. I love The Movement. But for now I am a student, and it’s good to be back.

Sam M. Simon ’06, a Crimson editor, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.