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You Need To Get Away

The Long View

By Adam I. Arenson

My first week here, a tenured professor told me to get lost. In the keynote speech of the "Hub of the Universe, Spoked" set of excursions, Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape Development John R. Stilgoe mused on how much time and effort all of us energetic first-years had spent on getting into Harvard, and he felt it was his duty to help us get out. Flipping through slides of New England sights rustic and unusual, he said it was our duty to find out what existed beyond the Yard, and to come back better people.

Inspired, I joined four fellow denizens of Hollis Hall and made a trek to the water: the T to State Street, and under the Big Dig work to the glistening blackness of Boston Harbor, the boats swaying in the calm of a cool autumn evening. We were late for our first proctor group meeting, but it was well worth it.

I am constantly alarmed by how little my fellow students know about the Boston area. What direction is Logan Airport from here? What differentiates Allston from Brighton, Somerville from Arlington? Where would you look for Portuguese food, and how do you get to Walden Pond? The Unofficial Guide may provide some clues, and help you pinpoint an Ethiopian restaurant off the Orange Line, but wouldn't it be better to get lost?

As spring break begins today, Harvard students are jetting off to places exotic. Sightseeing in London, drinking yourself silly in Jamaica--these are the whistle-stops in the life of the privileged college student, and I do not begrudge them, for myself or others. But it seems sad, really, that many folks will graduate from Harvard having been up the Washington Monument but not the one on Bunker Hill, having been to Ireland but not South Boston, the home of Kafka but not of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, or Longfellow.

I pride myself in having combined Project HEALTH and Phillips Brooks House programs with my desire to see New England. I have spent afternoons in Roxbury and been to sites of local note from Mt. Monadnock to Battleship Cove. I have seen the Patriots Day reenactments in Lexington, the running of the Marathon, and been apple-picking in the fading days of fall. I know how walkably close State is to Copley, no matter how many stops and transfers getting there on the T would require.

More than Boston, however, I am constantly surprised by Cambridge. When you walk away from the River, up one of the familiar signposts streets--Oxford, Garden, Cambridge--you enter into another world. One where real families live, where there are markets and laundromats, corner cafs and bars for locals, church services not overrun by Harvard sorts of concerns. There is character to this city of ours, and almost none of it mirrors the concerns of the Square.

If college students are your kind of thing, don't look now, but Boston is a college student mecca. Remember those statistics your guidance counselor ran off, about 30 percent of the area's population? About how many of them do you think you have met all holed up in Lamont Library? Whatever you think Harvard lacks--from huge athletic events to presidential debates to enough people to date--the plethora of Boston schools, small and large, provide an opportunity to remedy these shortcomings. The differences in career orientation and academic structure could help you look outside the College's boxes and see what you really want to do, hiding in the fine print of the handbook.

All of this may be obvious, the sort of advice your mother gives you on the phone while you are ignoring her and checking your e-mail instead. You may think you have "no time," since as Harvard students we allow all our tasks to expand and fill the time available. You may give lip service to this column, e-mailing it to blockmates or posting it on the Microfridge. But I won't believe you until I see you out there, admiring the view from Roxbury, walking across Longfellow Bridge, and finding the best calamari in the North End. If this week you are going to tell strangers in Atlanta or Athens you "go to school in Boston," you need the knowledge to prove it.

So get out. Not just during breaks, but every week. Set aside some time to wander, to find out more about your environment and perhaps yourself, or a good friend. Get lost, and come back better for it. When the top of William James Hall appears in the distance, you will feel a new attachment to things Harvard, a new appreciation for how convenient--or oppressively isolating--our living arrangements are. But you'll never know if you don't get away.

Adam I. Arenson '00-'01 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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