The raindrops settle against the window of our common room in Grays Hall. It’s 11 p.m. on a Thursday night, and my roommate and I are finishing up papers due the next day. Music plays in the background, and the next song comes on. Immediately, I recognize the old classic: John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town.” I was back home in Ohio the last time I heard it. Hearing the same song in my Harvard common room, I realized that I became a different person with new views, experiences and perceptions of myself over the past year.
I hear the opening guitar riff, the steel jangle of the tambourine, and in an instant I’m taken back to a place distant from the scramble of Harvard Yard. Back to tubing on the lake and laughing so much my stomach hurt. Back to midnight drives down gravel roads in the woods, bright lights scanning for deer. Back to lying on the grass at Oak Park next to the train tracks, watching the midwestern sky explode with fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Hearing Mellencamp’s Midwestern anthem felt different to me this time though. Amid deadlines, summer scheduling, and p-sets, this song provided an escape. And for the first time since coming to Harvard, I felt a sense of pride about where I came from and gratitude for the memories of my childhood years.
Growing up in a small town in southern Ohio, I lived out a childhood that doesn’t seem particularly real at times. I knew everyone in my graduating class since elementary school. Three of my past teachers lived down the street from me. Every week, the whole town would put on their cowboy boots and root for the home team under the Friday Night Lights. The American Dream had been bottled up in twist off Coca-Cola bottles for us at the Country Fresh market, and we drank them every Friday after school.
When school got out for the summer, we’d ride our bikes everywhere. We’d play pickup games at the park and gutterball at the pool. If the ’90s movie “The Sandlot” was based off of a Midwestern small town, it would have been mine. My best friend once successfully re-enacted the CPR scene with an older lifeguard at the community pool. We gave him serious props for it.
Yet I always knew that I would leave. As Mellencamp says, “I had seen it all in my small town.” While my small town provided my parents with a comfortable environment to raise a family, and a carefree childhood that I am very grateful for, as I grew older I began to notice some things.
My first memory of self-introspection was in first grade when my teacher mispronounced my last name on the first day in a way that sounded just like “Ur-anus.” From then on my friends made fun of my name, turning it into a laughingstock. Other names also came about: “Dominicano,” “Jorge,” and others that I’d prefer not to say. When I first told my dad about the nicknames in first grade, he became visibly upset. My father, living far away from his Mexican-American family, struggled to provide my sister and I with the same experience that he had with his Latino family.
It wouldn’t have been possible in Ohio.
Friends would refer to my father as “George Lopez” just because he was the only other Latino they had ever known. I chose not to share my Mexican-American traditions with my friends, because I didn’t think they’d be interested. Everytime they came over for dinner, they’d ask for chicken nuggets or mac n' cheese.
It wasn’t until I came to Harvard that I began to feel comfortable seeking out my own identity and seriously thinking about who I was as an individual. Since coming to Harvard, I’ve made friends that have made me feel comfortable sharing my experiences as a Latino. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like I have to wear a button down shirt and boat shoes just to make friends. I don’t have to stand in the football stands every Friday night or binge drink away my loneliness like the majority of my classmates did in high school to feel a part of the community.
Harvard has made me realize that there’s more to life than living in a small town for the rest of my life. Over the years a desire grew for something different, and ultimately, that’s why I chose to come to Harvard instead of Ohio State. Each day here is something new, learning from fellow classmates about their own experiences and interests, each different from my own. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of the world at large. Harvard has become a new home for me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
I will always hold a place in my heart for John Mellencamp and his midwestern anthems. I’ll still dance along to them with my mom in our kitchen. Heck, I’ll sing them at the top of my lungs with the windows down in my car when I go back home this summer. But I’ve decided to make room in there for the other George that I didn’t give a voice to over the years. I’m going to listen to him more. I’m going to get to know him a little better.
George A. Arenas ’22, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Grays Hall.