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The phone call came in the middle of March.
With the bulk of senior year behind me, and the distance between the present and the future shrinking by the day, I readied myself for a call like this, double-checking the red phone in our room, clearing hours for uninterrupted waiting-by-the-phone time.
Sitting in the Adams House dining hall, I was two days away from handing in my thesis, and the screen of my phone lit up. Just as I planned, and what good timing. A 212 area code. Even though the past year has bruised New York City, the number rang with promise. A person in a New York office building was calling me. The digits ended in a round number. Probably a very big office building. An important person who worked in a big Manhattan office building wanted to talk. This person could see great stretches of earth and sky from where he sat, and surveying all that landscape, had wisely decided to call me. The assembled members of the Adams family, their portraits hanging on the room’s walls, looked on approvingly.
I was looking for a job in journalism and knew that there were still a few media companies in New York City hiring. Not newspapers, of course. But news was still coming out of New York, and maybe someone wanted me to help cover it.
The man on the other end of the phone said he was from a news Web site—one that I recognized. He told me that someone from The Crimson had given him my name. The Mountain was coming to me! After months of sweaty-palmed interviews and unnoticed cover letters, my hard work in the minor leagues of journalism was finally about to pay off.
Before you fault me for a certain brand of Harvard bubble-dwelling—they don’t just give jobs out!—you should know that they once really did. There’s a well-worn story told at The Crimson about a wealthy magazine owner cold-calling the newsroom a few years ago and asking for recruits. Give me your name, and I’ll give you a job. Couldn’t have been easier. It was a foot in the door that served at least a couple young writers quite well.
Here was my chance. The reporter had been given my number. Good. Been told I was the right person to talk to. Well, of course. He was writing a story. Oh. About The Crimson. I see. About how Crimson editors weren’t going into journalism any more. Gulp.
I had spent nearly four years in a newsroom without direct sunlight, worked summers at a newspaper and a magazine, done all the right things, I thought, to lead me to this moment. Someone would call, offer me a job, and I would be on my way. But when the call came, I was being told, quite simply, that there was no way. I suppose being handed your obituary is difficult at any age. It turns out twenty-three is no exception.
For the members of the Class of 2009, whether wannabe journalists or not, failure has become the new success. “The dirty secret is out. Harvard students fail sometimes,” The Boston Globe told us this April, breaking the story wide open.
Of course, The Globe is in an expert position to judge failure these days. But you’ll find no schadenfreude here, since, as the voice from the Manhattan newsroom reminded me, their failures lead to my own.
What to do when you graduate into a world that seems completely different from the one you prepared for? It was good to have a few members of the Adams family near by; at least Henry could offer comfort. The Harvard historian’s generation slouched into the twentieth century with the same bewilderment with which we face ours, also feeling trained for an era that looked nothing like his own.
“Only in 1900,” Adams wrote famously, “the continuity snapped.”
Only in September 2008, it did again, or so we’ve been told. Like the September seven years before, this one is said to have changed everything. That snapping sensation was almost certainly louder for ears tuned to a specific frequency—those of a graduating senior alert to any sounds of change. I was hearing it again in a phone call from Manhattan.
The reporter had his story—some people were still reporting—but the story was, in short, that after 135 years of graduating Crimson editors populating the ranks of young journalists, our class marked the end in another continuity. It is far safer, particularly these days, to predict a bust than a boom. Valleys all around without a peak to be seen.
Peak time, if you ask me, to be beginning. Certainly, someone will be needed to call members of the Class of 2019 and tell them their future is over too.
Samuel P. Jacobs ‘09, a former Crimson associate managing editor, is a history concentrator in Adams House.
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