The smartest girl I know can't read. She can't ride a bike without training wheels or count to 100. She can't concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. Sitting still is a task. Trapped by language, she speaks in fragments where her thoughts come out as indistinguishable hodgepodges of sound. She used to speak with more clarity, but she is frustrated that in her 14 years of life, she has had so many ideas, dreams and opinions that she could not express in words.
Some of you would probably dismiss her. Partly because you wouldn't know how to respond to her antics and often inappropriate behavior and partly out of a feeling of helplessness. You might look at her, and know her problems are not an equation that can be solved, a theory that can be proven, a philosophy that can be explained.
This girl, my sister Sherri Beth Hyman, who in all likelihood will never live self-sufficiently or even graduate from high school, has taught me more that anyone I know: She has taught me how to love and how to treat others.
But I won't lie to you. Though Sherri continuously inspires me, creating a relationship with her has been a difficult and ongoing process. When I think about my closest friendships, I realize that many of them were ignited by similar interests. Whether impersonating Madonna at my fifth grade talent show with Rachel, traveling from Camp Scatico to Cannes with Dina, hitting seedy New York dance clubs with Judd, gorging food with Madeline or sharing a room the size of a closet with Heather, my friendships have emerged out of shared experiences. While I'm not best friends with these people just because we had a jazzy talent show act or we shared a slice of pizza or two, each experience was a stepping off point to a deeper, more emotional bond. Even though it may be as superficial as a volleyball game or a mad shopping spree, there was always something concrete--an event that I could label--that drew me towards each of my best friends. Only after I spent time with each friend did the trust, shared feelings and dreams, the true ingredients of friendship, factor into the equation.
With Sherri, the similarities that should draw us together are much harder to find. On the surface, we have nothing in common--no sports, no academic interests, no activities. Though Sherri is fighting to improve her speech, holding any sort of lengthy conversation is challenging. Now of course, I have unconditional love for my family, but love must be nourished. And for many years, I thought that nourishing this love with my other family members was just plain easier. I can gamble with my dad over a game of backgammon or talk to my mom at the kitchen table--both things I cannot do with Sherri.
In order to connect with Sherri, I had to tear down my definitions of friendship and love to their most basic levels. No longer able to rely on shared interests, I had to connect with Sherri personality to personality, heart to heart. This time, the trust, shared feelings and dreams had to come first.
Ironically, I discovered what I already knew and what Sherri had been constantly putting into practice--that a person is not inextricably linked to their actions and that my relationship with Sherri is based on my understanding of who she is, not what she does.
I love Sherri for the way she embraces everyone with open arms, and how she genuinely cares about everyone with whom she comes into contact. I love how Sherri will be the first one to notice how others are feelings--sharing in their happiness and comforting them in their sorrow. She does not judge others, even if they have hurt her in the past. To Sherri, every day is a clean slate, a fresh opportunity to laugh, share and learn from one another. And Sherri has never given up. Even when teased by the neighborhood girls, her long ago-playmates, when rejected by her best friend Amy because she was not up to Amy's middle school standards of cool, or when cast aside by the piercing looks of waiters and store clerks--Sherri has never cracked her positive attitude. She never loses hope that others will soon see her as a genuine and funny person to befriend instead of a disabled nuisance to pity or even worse, to ignore. Sherri has taught me that the most beautiful aspect of friendship is connecting with each friend on a personal level, seeking out the one thing that really sets your friendship awhirl.
The problem I have found at Harvard is that, unlike Sherri, Harvard students focus on the what instead of the who. Not only are we eager to know if someone plays lacrosse, acts in the Ex or is a Fox man, we thrive on knowing. Knowing if someone sports a Crimson Key T-shirt or sings with the sexiness of an Opportune, we can easily group them into superficial categories of cool or uncool. Are they worthy of a nod, a quick hello or an invite to the next HPC cocktail party? The coolness factor is everywhere, and I am guilty of it as well. But we have to step back. If true friendship is based solely upon academic or extracurricular pursuits, why don't schools exist for baseball players who concentrate in economics or Crimson editors who broadcast on WHRB?
Just last year when I was pawn to an inane comping process for an activity, the selectivity of which is based purely on pretention, my interviewer became much more impressed with me when I told him that I had acted in the G&S; production of The Gondoliers. It didn't matter that my chorus role was miniscule. To the interviewer, I was now "talented" and worthy of his respect. Forget about judging or self-segregating based on ethnicity--we at Harvard are too righteous and politically correct. We only self-segregate based on skill. We are trapped in the middle-school mentality that only the people who have crimped hair and slap bracelets are worthy of playing seven minutes in heaven.
Really, a capella groups, Final Clubs, sports--it's exactly the same. What we need is a whole lot of Sherris at this school. People with a strength of heart as well as a strength of mind. Yes, the smartest girl I know can't read. She can't read words, but she can read emotions. She can read friendship. She can read love.
Jennifer Y. Hyman '02 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Quincy House. Next semester she will be an associate editor of Fifteen Minutes.