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Remembering Their Harvard Experience

Harvard '86

By Michael W. Hirschorn

A large body, clad in bullet belt and spiky hair came flying over my head. I ducked, but too late. A heavy black boot thudded into my avaitor metal-rim glasses, implanting an outline of the frames into my face and sending the glasses to an ignominious end beneath hundreds of other jackboots.

That accident, at a farewell concert for a local rock band, effectively marked the end of my "punk" phase, a period during freshman year when I fancied myself somehow above and apart from Harvard and my own origins. I next reincarnated myself as a political junkie, dropping out of classes for days at a time as I followed campaigns throughout New England and opined at length in the pages of The Crimson about all matters electoral.

Taking on and casting off roles. That has been the dynamic of my and many other lives at Harvard. I doubt many of those who were my friends in high school would recognize or understand me today. Special "lifelong" friends from freshman and sophomore years have changed as well, taking on new personas and growing in ways that would shock anyone who hadnot seen them for a year or more.

If these collegiate personas are fundamentallyabsurd that is to be excused, because Harvard isnothing if not an incubator for such self-centereddefinition and redefinition. At few other placesand at few other times in our lives are we allowedthe luxury of extended self-absorption. One can domost anything here as long as one is smart enoughto put it all together during the two to threeweeks of each term known as reading and examperiods. One can have a nervous breakdown, descendinto a cycle of mindless sex and drugs, partyevery night all night, and engage in any number ofdeviant activities.

These trips of inward discovery take on apatina of glamor at Harvard, not in the leastbecause students here are much more taken in bythe "Harvard myth" than they would like tobelieve. To freak out in Cambridge is not just tofreak out, it is to freak outsignificantly. Perhaps it's just because Ilike writing that the Harvard-consciousness is sostrong, but I don't think so. I always have thesneaking feeling that I am living out someoneelse's Harvard novel or memoir, or that friendsthink they are somehow acting out the script tothe play of the human condition.

All relationships become "Love Story," allwriters are Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, orT.S. Eliot, all politicians are FDR, allsocialites are Edie Sedgewick, all academics areJohn Kenneth Galbraith--brilliant, savvy, sexy,worthy of a bad Harvard novel. In the same vein,all depressions become suicidal, and happinessresembles a Soma Holiday.

"This is so real," a female friend said to meat one point last year after spilling her guts fortwo hours. Not real, but hyper-real. She haddescribed a series of problems that most peopledeal with on a daily basis, but which in theHarvard incubator--where she could agonize overthem on a 24-hour basis--had taken on psychoticdimensions.

I think I have had a rare perspective on thistendency. My mother died last year. It was the endof six months of disease, treatment, hospitals,glimmers of hope, self-delusion, and finallydashed hopes. I had spent the year, part of it asmanaging editor of The Crimson, dashing betweenclasses, The Crimson, Dunster House, and Mt. SinaiHospital in New York. Occasionally, I would go toa movie or a party or on a date. But mostly lifewas one big mind-numbing and guywrenching dashfrom dorm room to hospital room.

At The Crimson and among friends, few mentionedmy mother, and some were so scared of dealing withme that they avoided seeing or talking to me forweeks and months at a time. I rarely had thepresence of mind to bring up the topic myself,opting instead to enforce a level ofsuperficiality on my day-to-day existence thatwould allow me to function at The Crimson and notscare away acquaintances. Nonetheless, when theend came, during spring break, my friends ralliedaround in a show of support so wonderful that itstill brings tears to my eyes when I think aboutit.

This was real. And it perforce gave me the kindof emotional distance from life here thatclassmates, I suppose luckily for them, did nothave. The Crimson, which can chew up and spit outless sturdy sorts, became a wonderful distraction,where the daily crises served as an easy escapefrom truly important matters. I forced myself toenjoy parties, drinking, and the other trappingsof fellowship that function as an easy alternativeto true human interaction.

My Harvard education, as such, also endedjunior year, because I could never again hope tomuster the kind of drive and dedication that tookme through high school and much of college. Myinability to devote any energy to school work washidden as well, beneath a long-running joke Iperpetuated that I was Harvard's least-commitedstudent. (The fact that I could pull decent togood grades with no work subsequently has made mequite cynical about the vaunted Harvardeducation.)

Yet, the self-denial of junior year reboundedin senior year with an almost kaleidoscopic rushinto sincerity. I had been known among friends andby those who read my rantings in The Crimson as asnide cynic who relished cutting down everythingin my sights. By senior year, that no longersatisfied me, because I concluded in part that,since everything in life in inherently flawed,there is little inherent value to firing rhetorcalblasts at will. That conclusion seeped over intomy personal relationships, where I tried to resisttrashing others in the manner to which I wasaccustomed. The change left me at one pointexasperatedly trying to explain to an especiallyacid-tongued freshman that the only thingfundamental to life was to love one another. Hesuspected I had been Moonieized or surreptitiouslysubjected to an EST session.

I grew impatient with normal social niceties,turning on a friend who through no fault of herown was unwilling to open up her soul to me, andsecretly resenting others who still lived by asocial code I had left behind a year before.

These sea-changes have caused life to become amore intense experience. When the veils arestripped away, both happiness and sadness becomemore intense, not in the melodramatic Harvardsense, but in the most simple, fundamental sense.I am now both happier and sadder than I have everbeen before, which is, I suppose what maturationis all about. I had long wondered as a spoiledchild whether life would just end when one of myparents died. Life doesn't end, it just loses itsgiddy edge. I will never be as blithely happy as Iwas as a freshman, splattering my walls with dadaart and collecting friends like baseball cards.But maturation afforded me a more soberappreciation of the simple joys of waking up inthe morning, having friends, and just plain beinghappy.

That is a lesson not easily learned at Harvard,where people are either too neurotic or tooself-confident to allow the days to pass at theirown rate. Classmates willfully create crises andproblems because they are scared that happiness isa sign of mental laxity. We fetishize our neuroseshere, dote on trauma, and wallow in our angst. Weget away with it because we have no realresponsibilities here at college, where life is inessence one continuous hang out session and wherewe have the luxury to indulge ourselves in a waythat those in the workplace do not.

That is why I fear leaving this humanincubator. I have grown, especially this year, todepend on the continuous company of friends tolisten to and talk to, especially late at nightwhen the loneliness can become intense. In thereal world, friends get together when they havetime for lunch, or for a drink, or maybe to see amovie. People go to sleep after the 11 o'clocknews and awake in time for a busy eight-hour dayat the office. Life suddenly becomes a long strechof mundanity interspersed with a few intenseexperiences that are far between. I envy those whoare leaving here excited to the depths of theirsoul about a job or a trip or a fellowship, forthey will be eased out of the womb.

Many recent graduates continue to frequentCambridge, coming to undergraduate parties, datingundergraduates, and trying to hold on to thequickly receding pleasures of their Harvard youth.I used to laugh at these hangers-on, but I nowunderstand their weakness. Like them, I came herea naive youth, only to be stripped of myself-confidence, and thrown into an adult worldthat is infinitely more complex and subtle thanthe one I left. I suspect that those who do nothave this fear of leaving college have yet toreach that moment of self-knowledge, thatrealization that life is neither as wonderful oras simple as it seems to a newly-inducted memberof this nation's intellectual aristocracy

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