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Much of my four years here at Harvard have been spent on or around the Charles River and the small host of waterways that serve as race courses for the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges.
The league championship is held every May, sometimes right in the middle of exam period, on a very beautiful lake with the Native American, and thus nearly unpronounceable, name of Quinsigamond. My boat entered this year’s regatta with a 6-1 dual record and a #1 ranking. We easily won our morning heat and approached the evening final as confident and as poised as any crew I have ever been a part of.
But then, chance intervened.
A blistering cross-tailwind that whipped some lanes into course-record speed simply didn’t reach us; several crews we had beaten earlier in the year, and one we had beaten earlier in the day, flew by us like we were stuck in reverse. We finally crossed the line in fifth place. By all accounts, a crushing disappointment.
As we were silently walking our boat back to the trailer, my mind raced. For a few seconds I replayed some of the happier moments I had enjoyed at that regatta; jubilantly crossing the finish line, having a gold medal hung on my neck, and, finally, getting ceremoniously tossed into the water by my crew. Of course these memories weren’t exactly satisfying—since they only served to remind me of not winning—so my mind continued to turn as I walked alongside the boat, making sure it didn’t nick any parked cars or errant pedestrians.
Soon, and without my making a conscious effort to do so, my thoughts settled on a speech my coach had given earlier in the year at the annual Head of the Charles banquet. Speaking in the grandiose surroundings of Boston’s Harvard Club, he noted, “When you’ve been around the sport for as long as I have, you realize that sometimes the wind blows. The kids of course don’t want to realize it; but, sometimes, the wind just blows.”
All of a sudden, I came to a realization: During my time at Harvard, many things I had absolutely no control over influenced me strongly.
Perhaps the best example comes from within my own suite. One of my best friends, Alec, transferred from the University of Delaware as a sophomore. He was placed with my blocking group for a rather strange reason: One of my other blockmates, Nick, had a nasty run-in with the person the housing office originally assigned to live with us. Alec was switched into our room about two weeks before school started, after we informed the housing director of the situation.
It’s strange when I think about it, that I ended up making a lifelong friend because of an ultimately pointless disagreement between two freshmen in a dining hall—the student had taunted my friend Nick for wearing his ROTC uniform—but that’s as simple as it is. If that kid had kept quiet, I would have likely never really gotten to know Alec, and I certainly would never have lived with him.
But how does this relate to what I’ve managed to take away from this, the world’s wealthiest, and allegedly best, university? The most important thing that I’ve learned here—far more important than the slides I memorized for Literature and Arts B-21, “Images of Alexander the Great” or the critique of utilitarianism I learned in Moral Reasoning 22, “Justice”—also came to me as something of a sudden realization, this one during Russian class as we were reading a short story by Chekhov. The lesson, contained in the text itself, was the simple phrase: “Everything in the world is beautiful.”
“Life is beautiful” certainly seems like a rather obvious—or even worse, trite—statement, and certainly not like the result of four years of intensive, and quite costly, study. Yet this simple statement can get clouded very easily, especially at a place as competitive as Harvard. Like all high-pressure environments, this school tends to emphasize things that don’t ultimately matter, while simultaneously deemphasizing those that really do.
Recognizing the beauty in the world when it is 20 degrees outside and dark at 4:30 p.m., or alternately during exam period when it is pouring rain and you are on the way to crew practice is an exceedingly difficult task. I would be lying if I said I could always accomplish it, but I do think that as I’ve moved through Harvard I’ve been able to recognize and appreciate the good more and complain about the bad less.
This doesn’t mean I don’t get a bit frustrated when the Eliot House e-mail list erupts into a “debate” over the political issue du jour, when some student group sets out to “solve” hunger, racism, war, and bad breath, or when someone makes a particularly snooty comment in class. Rather, I’ve learned to see—or at least tried my very best to see—this university’s multitudinous warts and annoying quirks for what they are: part and parcel of what makes it unique and, in its own strange and confusing way, beautiful.
I hope that this does not come across as mere sentimentality, the melancholy writings of a senior unwilling or unable to adequately process his experiences and make some sense out of his four years. Let me be clear: My appreciation for Harvard hasn’t suddenly undergone a dramatic change for the better, what has changed is my appreciation for a life lived fully.
Truthfully, like most, I won’t remember much of what I learned in my classes. I can say, however, that I leave here with a rejuvenated sense of what is important in the world, and a heightened appreciation of the mystery, splendor—and as on Lake Quinsigamond—disappointment inherent in life’s unfolding. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t what Harvard set out to teach me, and I know that it isn’t what I set out to learn when I first arrived here. And yet it remains a lesson for which I am intensely grateful, and it is what I take away today.
Mark A. Adomanis ’07, a Crimson editorial editor and a former editorial columnist, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.
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