You live a comfortable life. Your food is cooked for you. Your halls are swept for you. Your toilet is scrubbed for you. You might even have paid for your laundry to be done for you, and for clean water to be brought to you. You don’t really have to worry about the heating, or the electricity bill, or the Wi-Fi. Admit it, you’ve got it good.
But don’t forget the cooks, the cleaners, the laborers, the drivers, the mechanics, the electricians, the gardeners, the building managers, the security guards, the mail people, and all the other helping hands that make your life so easy. Maybe you’ve been in their shoes at some point in your life, maybe you’ve only had a taste of the lives they lead, or maybe you can’t truly say you’ve ever worked a day in your life — to tell it short, it doesn’t matter.
Let’s stop by the dining hall for a bit. If your mother raised you right, you ought to be on a first-name basis with at least one of the dining hall workers, and you ought to greet them when you get there. Ask them how they’re doing today, and most will gladly let you know. They work long hours, ferrying hot, heavy, steaming vats of food back and forth around the kitchen — otherwise they’re blasting your dirty dishes clean with scalding hot soapy water or frying up your third grill order of the day. If you’ve never worked in a kitchen before, suffice it to say it is exactly the sort of work smug manager-types say “builds character” — a nice euphemism for humiliation.
But these workers are not humiliated by their line of work. Many of them are immigrants, and this job pays better than any job they might have found back home. One HUDS worker I am close with often tells me how her visits back to her home country put things in perspective for her. She is grateful to God for the work she has, because her relatives back home do not have it as good as she does. Whenever she visits, she spends a lot of money there because she wants her family to have a good time and not to worry about how much it costs. She also sends money back to her elderly aunt and mother so they don’t have to struggle to find work in their old age. From what I gather many of the dining hall workers, like she is, are proud of their work, and they deserve to be.
You, however, may be thinking to yourself, “Hey, I work very hard, you know. I spend as many hours as any of these blue-collar types and I’m training Bayesian neural networks via variational inference and writing about the sublimity of Chaucer’s narratological excursuses! I’m special and deserve to be pampered by those less talented than myself.” Okay, if I just read your mind verbatim, you can go pound sand up your pompous ass. But if you think my straw man is stuffed a little too thick this time around, I’d invite you to reflect on your own preconceptions.
How well would you say you know those who serve you? All the workers here at the “Harvard corporation” whose sole purpose for much of each day is to make your time pass a little more smoothly, how often do you realize you should be thanking them for their work?
Sure, you do work hard. But you know what’s probably true, too? You’ve spent your entire life working for yourself — maybe you’ll give back to your parents, your teachers, or your community somewhere down the line, but only after you’ve taken care of your own concerns. If you really think you’re tired, take a look at their dead-tired eyes and tell me you’re feeling just as low. Time spent on your education is different from time spent working at a job. Your education is really an investment (or, at least, that’s why they say it costs so damn much) — a job is somewhere you go to cash your chips in. Many of the workers at Harvard have a lot of people depending on them — children, grandparents, relatives back home — and they send money from every paycheck to make sure they are all taken care of.
Worst of all, their work, and therefore their time, is not for themselves, but for you, and sometimes just for the faceless Harvard brand. Trust me, they’d rather be with all those loved ones than be mopping up the remnants of your Friday night from the bathroom floor. So, if you do not treat the employees on this campus (local, immigrant, student, or otherwise) with the same basic respect and humanity you reserve for your friends, family, and classmates, you are actively dehumanizing them. Next time you see someone in a crimson jumpsuit leaf-blowing the courtyard of your building, look them in the eyes, wave, and give them a smile, if you can muster it. Thank them if you like. We all bleed crimson — you might even make their day.
Ben A. Roy ’20 is a Classics concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.