Last Friday, one of my peers was brutally arrested by Cambridge police, police sworn to protect him and me alike. He, a lone individual, was surrounded by multiple officers. They threw him on the ground. They held him down as one officer punched him repeatedly. He cried out for help. They responded with even more force. This was a public assault. It occurred in response to a vulnerable individual who was in desperate need of aid. And it occurred not just despite, but in the shadow of the towering prestige of this institution.
It was the worst type of moment—I was walking across the Quad lawn, calm and slow, texting on my phone, aware that it was 8:48 a.m. and the shuttle would be leaving in two minutes. And then, suddenly, I looked up. Almost as if in slow motion, I watched the shuttle pull up in front of the SOCH, watched a crowd of my peers board it, and watched it roll away.
For the entirety of my college experience, I’ve eschewed the dramatic international destinations of my peers—Beijing, Barcelona, St. Barts. Instead, every chance I get, I go home to Baltimore.
We’ll start at the heart of campus, right here in Harvard Yard. Turn to your right—no, not that right, your other right. Do you see it? It’s a beautiful church. Yes, the steeple is gorgeous and perfectly pristine. There’s a reason we’re starting here. This church defines the Harvard experience: Every year during Opening Days, the new freshman class gathers in front of its steps for Convocation. Four years later, that same class gathers here once more for Commencement. Even if a student never attends the morning services, Memorial Church is where the Harvard journey begins and ends.
I know you’re thinking I’m crazy, but just hear me out.
Cleaning the bathroom is my oldest ritual. (I developed it sometime around middle school.) The method is tried and true, down to the order in which I clean. I pour bleach into the tub, and scrub it until my knuckles get red and the perforated surface is gleaming white. Then I scrub the toilet, seeking that pristine sheen when every nook and cranny is clean. I wipe down the counter, get my Clorox wet wipe in between the silver handles of the sink. I spray Windex on the mirror until my reflection is as crisp as reality. Finally, I sweep the floor—and I also wash it, just in case anything has gotten into the crevices or crannies.
Though my mom had no problem with my need to clean back in middle school, now it befuddles her. She tells me every semester not to worry about it, to focus on more important things. These important things include my school work (like picking classes before shopping week starts) or my extracurricular work (like Crimson pieces I tend to procrastinate on) or even something practical like packing (which isn’t my strong suit either—the clock is ticking, but my clothes are still in the laundry). Besides, it makes no sense—my knuckles are red from bleach that I won’t even see the benefits of, since I’ll be gone for the next few months.
But none of that matters. In that moment, hours before I will be re-submerged into the craziness that is Harvard, I need to clean.
At school, my ritual continues. It’s a newer one, and it extends beyond the bathroom, but things aren’t much different. I vacuum the floors until they’re spotless (the trickiest spots are the carpet in the common room and the tiles under the bathroom counter). I return to Clorox wipes for the bathroom counter, and I make do with what I have to wipe down the toilet too. I do this even when I have a paper, a midterm, or anything else.
The reason I started cleaning so obsessively is because for me, cleaning the bathroom is cathartic. It’s not exactly fun work. It’s definitely not glamorous. The bleach stings. I’m not the tallest person, so I usually end up bent in half, reaching the bottom of the tub, with my knees scraping the floor. I’m a perfectionist too, so it takes me a while—even the thin film of dust that accumulates at the top edge of the cabinet drawers doesn’t escape me. But there is nothing better than that feeling, when finally, after everything, it’s all perfect.
The reason I’ve kept cleaning is because it grounds me. A clean space is something that I often take for granted in my daily life—whether it be the perfectly arranged chairs in Lamont Cafe, the public bathrooms on campus, or even my own en-suite bathroom. It’s something we all take for granted. However, behind the comfort that we don’t even think about is the labor of hundreds of workers and even some of our own peers working in Dorm Crew.
When I clean my bathroom, I find that I invariably think about the work of all those people. I’ve found that by doing, I can achieve understanding, and I gain value and perspective. When I set aside summer internship applications or my half-finished (or not started) response paper to clean my bathroom, I remember that cleaning is just as critical as my academic work. It is difficult, and it feels thankless, but it makes a huge difference to my own peace of mind and quality of life when it’s done.
Ultimately, there is something humbling about putting Harvard aside to clean the toilet. I’m not saying that you’re doomed to be a bad person if you never get down and dirty like that. But I am saying that here, we can all use a bit of humbling. Too often, here at Harvard, we get entangled in grandiose theories and great plans. In sections and dining halls, we engage in self-important debates about how to empower the working class and how to achieve social equality. At the same time, we retreat further and further into our ivory tower, until a simple task like cleaning the bathroom that we use becomes something that is beneath us.
Sometimes, it’s important to put ambition aside to live and grow in experience and understanding. Many of us have been exposed to glamorous experiences in our lecture halls or on Harvard-funded trips on the other side of the world, but we can’t forget the importance of the other half. We can’t forget that we must stay grounded in these tasks that bring us back to reality.
So next time you’re home, or maybe next time your in-suite bathroom starts to get a little gross—pick up a sponge, get some wet wipes. And get in there. You’ll come out a little sweatier, a little more tired. But I promise, you’ll be satisfied with your work—and more importantly, you’ll know a little more about the world then you did when you started.