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At the beginning of the year, coming back to campus after a semester away seemed simultaneously exciting and daunting. Perhaps as a coping mechanism, I started jokingly referring to myself as a Tired Old Queen, and I laughed as the term caught on among my first-year mentees in FUP.
Tired Old Queens are a reclamation of the Senior Washed Up Girl, or SWUG. Tired Old Queens drink wine on weekdays. Tired Old Queens deadpan incisive commentary in section without regard for relevancy to the readings. Tired Old Queens are excited for Harvard-Yale because it means getting brunch with their Yale counterparts while everyone else stands in the cold. Tired Old Queens dress however they want—whether that’s sweatpants on a Friday or heels on a Wednesday.
As a self-identified TOQ, I’m down with all that. But this begs questioning: Why are we Tired Old Queens so tired in the first place? What does it mean that my senior year is the most exhausting of my four years at this place?
Being a senior means that I’ve spent nearly four years on this campus watching people run themselves into the ground, letting themselves get sick, and forcing themselves to continue onward until they can’t anymore. I watch people take mental health leaves each semester, and then I wonder why I stick around at a place that does such a great job of chipping away at our wellness.
Of course, Harvard is a place of prestige. That’s why we stick around. We all worked ourselves too hard to get here, and we’re not supposed to criticize it. We’ve toiled our way to royal ranks, dining and sleeping in the same halls as presidents and senators and billionaires. The enclosed spaces that we occupy every day are spaces that weren’t built for someone like me, but perhaps I’m still supposed to be grateful for them.
My point in reflecting on my own tiredness is not to evaluate how grateful I should be to Harvard. I’m grateful to my admissions officer and fortune for getting me in the door. I’m grateful for my single mom who always found a way to drive me to rehearsals, Model United Nations conferences, and my high school job, until I got my license and we started to share the family minivan. I’m grateful for the teachers at my high school who encouraged me to apply to my dream school in the first place—and yes, Harvard was, of course, my dream school.
But just because Harvard was—and is—my dream school, that doesn’t mean that my gratefulness can’t be accompanied by some deeper existential exhaustion. What does it mean that I’m at a place that wouldn’t have let me attend its all male college for the majority of its existence? What does it mean that Harvard’s female counterpart, Radcliffe, didn’t have any black graduates for the first 20 years of its existence? I’ve spent a lot of time and energy working through questions like that, as well as other questions that are hard to answer. Why was I not connected to punch processes as a sophomore? Why was I excluded from the very process of attempting to access female social spaces? Why did I have to organize hundreds of fellow students to prove to the administration that gender-inclusive housing options were not just a student priority, but a necessity? Why is it that I constantly feel like I’m put on the spot to speak for people of color, women, or queer people on the “hot topics” in the news relating to these identity groups? Why do I have to be the one explaining to fellow students that sometimes the issue isn’t free speech or protest tactics, but rather, my ability to exist on this campus without constantly feeling obligated to prove my worth?
In a recent article for The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb explains it: “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.” I’m not trying to frame myself as a disempowered individual. I’m simply saying that it’s exhausting to be on a campus where people’s definitions of liberal fairness are often asserted by individuals who are unaware of their own biased or unfair assumptions. I’m tired of being at a place that wasn’t built for me, trying to explain to people that we cannot take for granted the seemingly value-neutral ways that Harvard works. Examining the relative powerlessness of our Undergraduate Council or the relative power of our House masters seem like two good places to start.
I’ve “grown up” in these four years, whatever that means. I’ve grown to fit the title of Tired Old Queen, aged by the institution but also by my own changing perceptions of it. Learning that change often comes too slowly was hard. Even harder: learning that this is an environment of too much competition and too little empathy, built on the assumed homogeny of “Harvard men,” the labor of slaves, and the aggressive insensitivity of former institutional leaders. Where do those legacies leave me?
Janelle Monae’s song “Q.U.E.E.N” comes to mind when someone asks me why I identify as a TOQ instead of a SWUG. What intellectual work am I doing by calling myself a Tired Old Queen? I’m asserting myself as a woman (and not just a girl!) worthy of royal attention in the halls of American elites, redefining myself as someone who is allowed to make space in my life for resting. To my fellow TOQs on this campus, don’t let anyone take away your royalty.
Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 is a joint social anthropology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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