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Columns

Matriculation to Mortality

Or, the death of a student

By Molly L. Roberts, Crimson Staff Writer

One day last week, I woke up with a ringing in my left ear.

I pinched my nose and puffed up my cheeks. I moved my jaw from side to side. I went to the gym. I took a shower. Nothing worked, and the ear kept ringing.

Later, at University Health Services, a family nurse practitioner rang a tuning fork against the back of my head. He patted his hands along the sides of my face and down my jawbone, testing to see if I might have the mumps, which I did not. He asked me to smile, frown, lift up my arms, and squeeze his hands, testing to see if I might be having a stroke, which I was not.

This nice man diagnosed me with something called “idiopathic sensorineural hearing loss,” prescribed me steroids, and sent me to an ear, nose, and throat doctor who, two days later, told me my hearing was hunky dory. All the same, because better safe than sorry, he suggested I get a fuller battery of ear tests and an MRI.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “I’m dying.”

I spent the rest of the day thinking about the rest of my life. How would I spend my remaining year, month, or week? When was the right time to tell everyone I loved them? Whom did I love, anyway? Was it worth graduating, or should I skip town and see the world? And what did this whole “life” thing mean?

And then it hit me. I am almost definitely not dying. But, though the days of my life are far from numbered, the countdown clock on my college career is ticking toward zero. If there’s any mortality worth contemplating, that’s the one: College-me is about to bite the dust.

Thinking of the end of our time at Harvard the same way we think of the end of our lives might seem morbid, and perhaps it is. Yet it’s also useful. A version of each of us seniors really is about to die.

We’ve spent four years not just growing up, but growing into this particular place. We have formed around it, sometimes unconsciously but sometimes, as we’ve cultivated and even performed the kind of people we want to be, quite consciously indeed.

The moment we walk out of Johnston Gate for the last time, those selves will cease to be—they’ll have to, without the concentrations, clubs, and communities that made them who they’ve been from 2012 until today. In a very scary way, who we are right now depends on how we’ve built ourselves around and into the structures that make up Harvard—whether we’ve fashioned ourselves into artists or athletes, readers or writers. In the whole new world we’re about to enter, everything we’re contingent on will disappear. We will become whole new people. It might feel a little like rebirth.

It’s worth asking the same sort of questions about these final college-life moments that we’d ask about the final moments of capital-L Life. How will we spend our remaining two months? Should we go out more and drink more, or go out more and drink less? Should we stay home and talk to our roommates instead? When, and how, should we tell our friends we love them? Whom do we love, whom have we forgotten, and how can we remember? Most of all, if our college selves are whatever we constructed them to be, what does this whole "college" thing mean once we’re gone?

My ear is still ringing, but I don’t mind. My head is too full with the echo of these questions. After so much thinking in the classroom, we can finally start thinking about what matters most to us both in and outside of it, and why we chose that way. We can also start thinking about what we want our answers to mean going forward: whether we should preserve the personas we’ve so carefully curated here or whether we should cast them aside. We could also do nothing at all. Like death, leaving college is frightening. Also like death, the end may be less bitter than bittersweet. It’s only the end, of course, because there has already been a beginning and a middle.


Molly L. Roberts ’16, a former Crimson editorial chair, is an English concentrator in Cabot House. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.

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