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When I was younger, I had a stutter. Words used to stumble through the gap in my front teeth, tripping over their own syllables and landing unceremoniously in the air in front of me. The most difficult sounds to pronounce were vowels: Sentences that began with a, e, i, o, u (and sometimes y) got lodged in the back of my throat and were exceptionally difficult to untangle. Struggling through a stutter weakened my delicately emerging ego, and although I was an extroverted child around family, in school, I was shy and silent.
However, there were always other ways to communicate. In my early elementary years, I substituted my vocal cords for chalky graphite and learned how to articulate my thoughts on paper. A decade later, my stutter has subsided, and writing is still my communication form of choice. But, even without my stutter, a fear of judgment persisted. And being at Harvard has only made it worse.
You see, at Harvard, there is a different form of verbal communication that taunts me. I call it Harvard Speak, a sophisticated language marked by familiar phrases that distinguish an academic. Harvard Speak can be used in two ways: to embellish or to elevate.
For example, say you find yourself in a class discussion about a book chapter that you have not read. Five minutes before lecture, you furiously skimmed the chapter’s key points, but you fear that will not provide enough protection against your teaching fellow’s skeptical eye. Worry not — you need only employ Harvard Speak to embellish your underdeveloped ideas. Fill your sentences with phrases like “very much so” and “insofar as” to convince the listener of your cleverness.
On their own, these expressions are empty, but when used correctly, they can make superfluous sentences sound mystifyingly lyrical. Clarity is obscured in the fog of never-ending clauses and, at some point, the distinction between nuanced and convoluted thought disappears. But your listener probably won’t notice — after all, the more words you say, the smarter you sound.
Harvard Speak may also be used to enrich already eloquent speech. In fact, articulate diction presupposes the use of Harvard Speak as a natural feature of its excellence. Captivating orators wield Harvard Speak; their intellect is enticing, and moreover, downright infectious. They have perfected the art of gently rowing the listener along the current of their speech, guiding them into a hypnotic enchantment that is difficult to break.
What I find most interesting about Harvard Speak is that it is a language not entirely reliant on meaning. Whether or not you fully understand what you are explaining is irrelevant: What matters is whether you are explaining it well.
Given this, there is one crucial aspect of Harvard Speak that I have neglected to mention: To use it, you must possess unmalleable confidence. Only one who is confident can properly flower language in such a bewitching manner. This is because while Harvard Speak consists mostly of decorative terms, it is the conviction behind these phrases that ignites them.
This conviction is what I, and others who feel nervous speaking in elite academic settings, unfortunately lack.
The ability to assert yourself in academic spaces is how one’s intelligence is ratified. At Harvard, impressing your teachers and peers with invaluable contributions to the classroom proves that your much-coveted spot at this institution was not in vain. But to the students who are quiet and nervous, we fret the invisible accusations of inferiority — and, in turn, doubt our own place as well.
Because Harvard Speak is a dialect that we were not taught as children. Many of us didn’t know how to speak to adults with a straightened spine, because many of us didn’t know that we could. Elders were to be respected. Children were to stay in a child’s place. Meekness was a virtue and a smart mouth was a vice.
Our polite demeanors (“yes sir, no ma’am”) protected us against a world that punished kids with too much confidence. But this demeanor stuck with us past childhood, stunting our abilities to be unapologetic and prideful. Who were we to think ourselves as anything more than small? Who were we to demand attention? Whether it be the fear of fitting racial stereotypes, the novel pressure of being the first in your family to attend college, or the familiar discomfort experienced by women in male-dominated spaces — society is prejudiced to believe that we are to be seen, and not heard.
The confidence that comes naturally to many of our peers — the noble assertiveness that many of us were taught to suppress — is an object of my envy. But I choose not to dwell on that envy; instead, I will act on it. I will become fluent in Harvard Speak, and transform what has long rusted into gold.
But, before I master Harvard Speak, I must master confidence. Come to the realization that I am no longer a powerless child with a slight stutter, but a Harvard student, and that leaves no time to be timid. If I am to make my way past class discussions into the unforgiving realm of academia, I must learn to speak up. I must learn how to swiftly interrupt others, how to command an audience, and how to monopolize the space I fill. Somehow, I must mimic the impressive behavior of those around me, without separating myself from the life that has shaped my entire being.
Once I’ve mastered that, then I’m truly Ivy-bred. Harvard Speak will flow seamlessly from my mouth, and I will transform into the articulate aristocrat that is expected of me. There is no point in resisting this metamorphosis — conformity is the unavoidable price of prestige, and I’m willing to pay it. I can only hope while seeking success, I do not lose myself borrowing someone else’s words. To my silent peers, I wish for you the same.
Jasmine M. Green ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Lowell House.
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