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Hobnobbing at Harvard: My Date with Ivy
When my daughter’s friend Fu Zheng made a perfect score on her SAT I was quick to tell her I had a lot in common with her.
“I got a perfect score on my SAT too,” I said, “I got 100% of the questions right that I knew the answers to.”
When Fu Zheng got accepted into Harvard I was amazed at how similar our life stories were turning out to be.
“I’ll get accepted into Harvard too,” I said. “As soon as you go there and invite me to visit, I know they’ll accept my presence on campus.”
“Well, I’ll be sure to invite you when I get there,” Fu Zheng promised me.
It took Fu Zheng two and a half months into her first semester to make good on her vow. My daughter Mary Grace’s 19th birthday coincided with Parents Weekend at Harvard and we flew to Boston to see what life at the flagship school of the Ivy League was like. Once I secured a rental car at Logan Airport Fu Zheng’s mother, Zan Wu, barked orders into my cell phone to arrange for our meeting.
“Meet us at Harvard Square by the bank,” she told us.
This relieved me of my worries until I arrived at the toll booth to cross under Boston Harbor. The clerk in the booth wouldn’t let me go by unless I mortgaged my house to her. I signed paperwork, left my fingerprints in blood on a contract, and was allowed passage.
“We should have gone the other way,” I told Mary Grace.
“What other way, Daddy?”
“Any other way that would have allowed us to maintain ownership of our home.”
“Oh, well,” said cheery Mary Grace, still smiling. My girl is a living embodiment of the eternal optimist.
I kept looking for a way to cross the Charles River to get over to Cambridge, the seat of Harvard University. One of the bridges was shut down for construction, and another was a parking lot. I wailed and gnashed my teeth.
“Mary Grace,” I said, “maybe we can swim across. Did you bring your bathing suit?”
“No. Even if I did… isn’t the water kind of cold?”
“You’re right. It might be better if we rented a canoe. Ever used an oar?”
“Just be patient, Daddy,” said Mary Grace.
An hour and a half later, our patience was rewarded when we finally made it over one of the bridges. It turned out that a massive dump truck had deposited several tons of gravel in the middle of the road: a perfectly sensible thing to do at high noon in one of America’s most congested cities. By this time Zan Wu was burning up my daughter’s cell phone.
“Where are you?” she asked with some irritation.
“We had a little dumping problem, Zan Wu,” I said. “But we’re in Cambridge now. I can almost see the Harvard Campus from where I’m stalled in traffic.”
“Oh, good,” the relieved mother said.
An hour and a half later, I had still failed to find the Harvard Square. I think I went by it once or twice but got distracted. At one of the stoplights a homeless person was reciting Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. At another intersection a construction worker held up a sign which said “Imperialism Kills!” These peculiar sights somehow derailed me from my groove and I kept making wrong turns. Finally Mary Grace saw something wonderful.
“That’s Harvard Square!” she said. “And I see the bank, too.”
Zan Wu was absolutely livid and was saying dastardly things in Chinese which I assume were curse words. As I didn’t know a word of Chinese I found her wrath quaintly amusing. It wasn’t my fault homeless people and construction workers in Cambridge were ten times smarter than I was. I wasn’t used to being the stupidest person in an entire town.
“I’ll drop Mary Grace off at the bank,” I told Fu Zheng after her mother had finished cussing me out. “And then I’ll meet you wherever you’re going. Where is that?”
“The football stadium,” she said. “They’re playing a game now.”
“Harvard has a football team?” I asked incredulously.
“Of course we do. But nobody cares unless it’s the Yale game.”
“Is the Yale game today?”
I dropped off Mary Grace and it only took me another hour and a half to find a parking place. I believe I had to go to another state to find one. Somewhere in central Vermont was an old burial ground called Mt. Auburn Cemetery. I drove in through the gates hoping I could park under a tree somewhere next to the remains of someone who passed into eternity in 1612. What would he care? The problem was that it was the most lovely cemetery I had ever seen in my life. Even I, hardboiled egg that I am, had a soft and reverent place for these honored dead. I couldn’t defile their remains by leaving a Toyota Prius under a tree and then jumping over the gates to find the Harvard Stadium.
So I parked at a closed doctor’s office across the road and ran like the wind back toward the Charles River, on the other side of which lay the excitement of Ivy League football.
An hour and a half later, after another homeless person argued with me about Aristotelian ethics and a 22-year-old from Sumatra convinced me to invest in his software firm, I ran across the Eliot Bridge, cut through Soldiers Field, and met up with Zan Wu in front of the stadium. I expected her to slap me, but once she began talking to me and realized my limited brainpower by local standards I believe she had pity on me. She gave me a ticket, took me by the hand and led me into the concrete bowl. A crowd of about 37 people, including Mary Grace and Fu Zheng, attempted to fill the 50,000 seat coliseum. We looked like ants in a drained swimming pool.
“Daddy, Fu Zheng and I are going back to her dorm,” Mary Grace told me. She and her friend had been there about ten minutes. “See you later.”
A bunch of poor saps in baby blue uniforms, the Columbia Lions, were getting hammered by the student athletes in the crimson uniforms. Zan Wu was spoiling the death out of me. She was introducing me to other parents, laughing at my atrocious jokes and expressing remorse for all the vile things she had previously called me in her native language. It turns out Zan Wu developed a crush of sorts on me.
At halftime Harvard led Columbia 28-0 and would go on to win the game 45-0. A friend of mine whose son attends Harvard later texted me and called Columbia the “worst team in the history of college football.” No wonder only 37 people were in attendance and 26 of them left at halftime.
“Let’s go,” said Zan Wu, and she grabbed me by the hand.
We walked with a bunch of well-heeled folks back across the Charles River on another bridge, by the Eliot House and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and were soon on the Harvard campus. Dating from 1636, the college was the first to be established in the American colonies and today has an endowment of more than $36 billion, nearly twice that of any other university in the world (Yale, its archrival, is second with an endowment of 20 billion). The list of its notable alumni staggers the imagination: eight presidents, including Barack Obama, and such notable foreign dignitaries as Pierre Trudeau, Benazir Bhutto and Benjamin Netanyahu.
The crisp autumn weather and colorful leaves made every view a postcard of the nearly 400-year-old campus. I was sure I had ascended to the Heaven for Smart People. Of course I had struggled mightily to get there. It was obvious at once to me that if God ever designed a college and a town, it must have been this one. All others that I've ever seen seem second class in comparison.
“Let’s go to the statue,” Zan Wu instructed me. The statue she meant is of John Harvard, the 30-year-old clergyman who on his tuberculous deathbed in 1638 left his inheritance of 780 pounds to support the fledgling college. Every campus tourist goes and stands there for a photo op. I did too, though I was more interested in the library around the corner.
The university library system has 18 million volumes, the largest college library in the United States. Zan Wu got me a crimson pin which enabled me to pretend to be a “Harvard Parent” in order to enter and be in awe of the main branch in the center of campus, the Widener Library.
It was dark now and we met Mary Grace and Fu Zheng in a chocolate shop in Cambridge, then went to the souvenir store in the student center. Dinner was at a modest Thai place with Fu Zheng’s roommate, a girl of Indian ancestry from Queens. Between bites of some flaming hot spicy chicken Fu Zheng said:
“It’s really hard for an Asian-American to get accepted to Harvard. They have a quota. If not for that, every single student at Harvard would be Asian.”
“Either that,” I said, “or every single student would have a perfect SAT score.”
Only about eight percent of Harvard’s applicants are accepted for admission today, in contrast to the early 1960’s when over half of the university’s applicants, almost all white males from prominent Eastern families, were accepted. Today more than half of the 21000 Harvard students (7000 undergraduate/14000 postgraduate) are nonwhite or international. The demographic changes were set in motion by an administration that wanted to make Harvard accessible on the basis of merit rather than birth. This goal led to the early establishment of standardized testing, driven by the increasing selectivity of this and other Ivy League schools.
Before bedtime Fu Zheng invited my daughter into Stoughton Hall, her dormitory, which fronts the old Harvard Yard. I felt a little like the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the old slow primate licking ants off a stick. I tried to pretend to be a lamp post or a chest of drawers. We heard about the whiz kid in the next building who spoke 22 languages and also the Olympic figure skater from downstairs. She actually came into the room and brought her costume for us to touch.
“Excuse me,” I said, realizing I was overstaying my welcome. “I’ll say good night.” Mary Grace would be spending the night with Fu Zheng and her roommate and I would be staying in a motel in another hemisphere.
“Good night, Daddy,” said Mary Grace, thrilled to be rid of me.
I hugged Fu Zheng, the figure skating girl, the Queens roommate, Zan Wu, a couple of other girls, a janitor in the hallway, a couple of homeless nuclear physicists and computer programmers and went out into the cold autumn night.
An hour and a half later I found the rented Toyota Prius in the vacant doctor’s office parking lot across from the cemetery. My nighttime tour of Cambridge, while just as impromptu as everything else I’d done that day, was immensely rewarding. I found Harvard and its surroundings to be one of the most fascinating milieus in the world.
© 2015 James Crawford