There is no shortage of hopefulness in Harvard Yard. This is a different place than Harvard Square—the interconnected spines of streets in Cambridge Massachusetts that both skirt around and incorporate parts of Harvard University. The school bleeds into the square (don’t let the name full you, virtually nothing in Boston or its outlying areas conforms to something as mundane and logical as a grid) with red bricked buildings sporting fresh white trim tucked into side streets. If you’re paying attention, you might notice plaques on some of the properties crowing their historical lineage. I passed one marker for Adams House that read in part “place where General Talbot and his soldiers were held prisoner in 1777.” A much different all-nighter than the kind these Harvard kids experience. Harvard Square is the social—eating, drinking, shopping—hub for students and tourists alike (at least for students when Mom and Dad are in town visiting and can spring for dinner at one of the upscale bistros). And contrary to popular linguistic myth you cannot paahhk your cahhhh in Haaahhhvaahhd Yaaahhhd any more than you can very easily or cheaply paahk it in Haaahhvad Squaaayayer.
The Yard is the sequestered, enclave that contains several of the school’s main buildings and a lot of its tourist eye-candy like the imposing Widener Library and the statue of the university’s founder, John Harvard. Great stone archways flanked by medieval wrought iron gates set into high brick walls form several entrances around the square. These are the portals to higher learning, the thresholds to one’s sense of personal destiny ready to be made, found, or squandered. Passing through any one of these gates, you do feel a little bit transported. The eternal keening of the buses, cars, street performers, and thrum of people filling Harvard Square tempers to meet the hush of the Yard dotted with ancient willowy trees, neat brick buildings, and rows of expertly manicured green spaces. The whole place seems to sigh around you. Only it’s not contentment as much as it is the breathy exhale of nervousness, wonder, anticipation—the bride before she toes the aisle, the runner before the starting pistol announces.
A short walk from one of the entrances opens up onto a small courtyard space buffeted by buildings. Metal café chairs and tables painted in cheery shades of orange, green, blue, and yellow are scattered around the area. It’s a great place to sit with a book or laptop or to take a pause from a day strolling around Harvard Square. The Yard is university property, but it’s also a public place, drawing in tourists, people who work in the Square, or students and faculty looking for a spot to perch.
It’s one of my go-to places when I need a bit of quiet and, quite honestly, a flat surface to write on. I never have to wait too long before the inevitable happens. A family colonizes a nearby group of chairs. At least one person in the group is college age or a year shy of getting shipped off to, well, maybe here! Beautiful, prestigious, historic Harvard University. Wouldn’t that be something? Our Jennifer a Harvard grad? Today it’s a gaggle of seven—two parents, an aunt-type person, two teens, a lad of maybe 12, and another young boy of maybe 10 in a wheelchair. This is no fact finding mission for this clan. This is not a drill. This is a done deal—someone’s starting Harvard in the fall.
Both teens bury themselves in their phones. Aunt-type-person heaves her Harvard University bookstore bag (presumably stuffed with a crimson tee-shirt, hat, sports towel, and traveling coffee mug) on the table, plopping herself into a chair. The day has swelled with stifling humidity. The leafy oaks in the courtyard refuse to offer any relief for this or any other future Harvard prodigy. Water bottles appear. Mom reports back that the student guide gave her the low down on move-in day: get here as early as possible, there’s an app that will tell you about road closures, you might be eligible for early move-in depending on your housing assignment. Young Lad hops around stalking a nearby squirrel. From inside her backpack, Aunt-type-person produces a paper map, one of the ones given out by any number of the walking tour groups in the area. It’s glossy, colorful, and a slightly cartoonish in its depiction of the churches, buildings, and restaurants (a lobster icon denotes GOOD SEAFOOD HERE) that make up the immediate Harvard Square vicinity. This is another charming oddity inside the gates of Harvard Yard. I routinely see people wandering through, paper maps held at arm’s length, heads pivoting. It’s almost as if this is a part of the visit to Harvard, navigation by paper map the way historical students once did in the 1980s! Fun! Trust me when I say that you wouldn’t be caught dead wandering around looking at something as archaic and plebian as a folded up piece of paper at MIT, the Valhalla of technology and innovation just a mile down the road. No.
Dad pecks at his own phone. His glasses have wandered down his nose from the heat. The entire family is together, but not here. The courtyard seems to exist in one of those “game off” zones that you called as a kid playing street hockey. They are suspended between the life outside the high brick walls and the future one that exists for one of the elder teens just inside the state of the art lecture halls and the sweaty dorm rooms. But it’s a future for Mom and Dad, too. It’s the one that starts with “When Jennifer graduated from Harvard” or “After Daryl got his degree from Harvard.” This innocuous courtyard is a weigh station for hope.
Mom continues to relay all kinds of tidbits gleaned from the student guide to no one in particular—the best place to get a burger (Bartlebys, duh), the price of T (subway) fares and how to get a student card, which gets you discounts at the bookstore and the CVS and a half dozen other places she can’t remember, but isn’t that great? Abandoning the squirrel, Young Lad takes up antagonizing his brother in the wheel chair who easily holds his own: in the longstanding battle of wheels versus feet, wheels always triumphs. Always. The tribe is restless and slick from the sticky air. It’s time to move. Aunt-type-person wants a photo by the John Harvard statue. You can see it from where we’re sitting. There’s a group clustered around the granite pedestal that contains the bronze tribute to one of many that hauled this modern Hogwarts into being. It’s impossible to tell if they are campus visitors on a student tour or tourists visiting campus. Phones and iPads hover like electronic bees. The family gathers themselves for their migration. They abandon their chairs and disappear to merge with the steady stream of people meandering all over the interior of Harvard Yard.
There have been other days much like this one where I have sat in one of those green or orange chairs with my book and my journal, enjoying the reprieve from the city beyond the courtyard when I hear a voice say, “Excuse me.” I look up to meet the kind and weary eyes of a Mom (usually). “Are you a student here?” I allow myself a second to be flattered that I can pass for a 20-year-old. But I know what’s really behind her question: Will her Michelle or Kyle or Casey be happy here? Will they be successful and thrive and feel safe and have the kind of life that maybe she missed out on? Will it all turn out okay?
I want to give her affirmatives across the board. I want to water the scrappy shoot of hope I hear in her voice. I can’t. It’s not mine to give anymore than it is the student tour guides or the admissions professionals or John Harvard himself should he decide to suddenly come to life off his granite perch and take a stroll through his storied stomping grounds.
I smile and shake my head, “Sorry, no.” And then to make up for the flicker of disappointment that passes over her face, I add, “But I wish it did.” And she smiles in return.