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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

From Out-of-Phase Eyes

By Adam I. Arenson

With all likelihood, this will not be my final column.

Unlike the vast majority of the roommates, friends and other classmates with whom I started Harvard in the fall of 1996, I have not finished my four years here. (Unsatisfied with the options for Study Abroad, I took a leave of absence last year and spent the year in Jerusalem.) And so, as my blockmates finish pass-fail finals, send acceptance cards to law and medical schools, buy their tickets to Senior Week activities and conspire to sell everything larger than a breadbox at fire-sale prices, I have quietly been searching out a thesis topic, thinking about fellowships applications and rather desperately trying to figure out the who and where of my living arrangement for next year.

Taking the second half of Harvard a year behind my class has been both a blessing and curse. First, I have seen what it is to reach the end of this red-bricked road. I have seen how many friends, no matter what they vowed against four years ago, take jobs for suits and skirts, in tall glass buildings with surname amalgamations for names--and the brave few who are headed out to underfunded elementary schools and service positions. I have seen how heartbreaking the graduate-school application process is. Currently, my roommates have posted their umpteen medical-school rejection letters around the real prize: one addressed to "Dear Applicant." Four years of labs, and some med school still doesn't bother to look up your name.

I have also seen the feverish pace of seniors destined to "see it all" in Boston. They have spent four years far from home, not ever going beyond Newbury Street. The Freedom Trail, the Arnold Arboretum, mansions in Newport, R.I.; attractions near and far that they planned to visit evaporated under paper deadlines and piles of reading. These goals have had one desperate chance at fulfillment: senior spring. I hope the experience of watching all of these senior rituals makes me more prepared to face these rigors next year.

What has impressed me more than the mechanics of leaving, however, has been the reality of being here. After a full year back at Harvard, it feels in many ways like I had never left, and I mean that as a lament. The first moment back on campus, I felt a lingering feeling that something somewhere was due--a lurking dread, a ghost in the system. At the end of two semesters back, my hands ache, my days are filled with errands and I look with wan sadness at sunny days as I sit editing a paper. It was like being away taught me nothing about how to tame the competitive feeling that seems to be in the water here. I saw the limitations, pulling at me the first few weeks back--but somehow, they still dragged me in.

Harvard mores have dragged me in again as well. I came back from learning in a small institution, from living in an apartment and spending time exploring, ready to do the same here. I was going to take the morning to bicycle in the country. I was going to change my activities and my life to reflect what I had learned. And then--I don't know what happened. Something. Harvard.

At the front of my mind now, however, is this spring: the Not-So-Beginning of the End for the Class of 2000. Leadership roles have been relinquished. Class rings have been received and graduation invitations have been sent. Yearbooks have been picked up, for crying out loud. Just yesterday was the last chance to run naked with classmates--and the first day when construction workers, amid the roped-off pieces of grass, began to build the white canopy in the Tercentenary Theater for commencement.

More than Harvard the College, my thoughts have turned to Harvard the People. For all the seniors, this is it. This is the end of the road for my Expos buddies and the people I met in Hurlbut hallways, handing me my first beer. The members of my sophomore tutorial are graduating; so are my entryway roomies, the people with whom I went to dinner before the First-year Formal and my ex-girlfriends from life in the Yard.

As I see them preparing, I play my part, but from a distance. I do, after all, have two more terms here, a thesis yet to write, all those applications and career plans in front of me. As they pack to leave, I think about storage and when to return in the fall. With the closest, my roommates, I haven't talked much about when I will see them next; I guess I am too used to them being down the hallway or across the common room. For many others from the past four years, such conversations would be silly. We have fought, or simply grown apart, and so, as I see them across the dining hall, I know that this glance may be all that we will share. I am a Harvard College student a year apart, now. As they all graduate, I will be on a plane, toward my summer internship.

To the Class of 2000, I guess this is my way of saying goodbye.

Adam I. Arenson '00-'01 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House.

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