“John Harvard Walks the Yard” — Reflection on my “Black Experience” at Harvard

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“A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the yard,

The books stand open and the gates unbarred.”

In 1986, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney penned his poem “Villanelle for an Anniversary” in honor of Harvard’s 375th anniversary.  Yesterday, a distinguished woman associated with the college and admissions recited the poem at a gathering for Harvard Book Prize winners.  The Harvard Club of Washington, DC hosted the affair on the top floor of the Jones Law Firm on New Jersey Avenue.  The outdoor terrace adjoining the meeting space featured an amazing view of the US Capital and the surrounding area.  It was an unseasonably hot, summer day tucked inside a late September morning.  It was DC at its best.

A student whom I last taught in Honors Literary Analysis two years ago invited me, along with the president of our school.  He knows I attended Harvard and is seeking whatever advantage he might gain as he seeks early decision admittance into that esteemed institution.  While nibbling mini-muffins and making small talk with his mother, I wanted to turn to him and ask, “Are you sure?”

At the ten year mark, I have had the privilege of teaching a number of students who achieved distinction upon graduation from high school.  I have taught several Stephen Joel Trachtenberg scholarship winners entering George Washington University, as well as a number of Posse Scholarship recipients.  I have seen  students leave my classroom and move on to the University of Virginia, Temple, M.I.T., Spellman, Virginia Commonwealth University, Penn State, Morehouse, Howard, and Georgetown.  But I have yet to witness a former student enroll at my alma mater.  I have a feeling that is about to change.  He is a remarkable, young man, and Harvard would be lucky to have him.  I just hope the luck will be returned.

Later, as I stood on the patio with the young man and marveled at the view, I turned and said to him, “Look out there.  We are standing here before the physical seat of government for the most powerful nation on Earth.  There are important matters being debated in all those buildings we see.  I want you to be  a part of that conversation. To me, that incredible view is your future life.  Pick your spots wisely.”

He turned to me and said, “That view metaphor you used is a good one, Mr. Roberts.  But, you know, we are on the seventh floor.  In my life, I have already done my fair share of climbing.”

I loved that observation and told him so.  He is a student and an athlete, and even two years ago his quiet confidence captured my attention.  “You remind me of me,” I told him sincerely back in tenth grade.  But standing there with him yesterday, so young and eager for the future, made me worry slightly.  Would Harvard be ready for him?

I first arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts on September 14, 1973.  I remember the date because I first met my wife. also a freshman, that night at a party.  Twelve days before beginning my first year, the only fully tenured black professor, Martin Kilson, had penned an article for the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Black Experience at Harvard.”  In it, he chastised the college for admitting too many black students who clearly did not belong.  Before classes had even begun, a black professor had labeled us intellectual pretenders taking up valuable spaces we had not earned.

I remember laughing when I first heard about the article.  Three students from my high school joined the Class of 1977, and my grades were superior to the white male admitted.  Still, Kilson’s contentions that too many black students were  nothing more than “affirmative action” babies who were anti-elite, self-segregating interlopers stung.  The college, Kilson charged, was admitting too many lower-income blacks.  I remember thinking about my mother, a single parent, who, though a Howard graduate with a professional, government job, earned less than many of the students I would encounter at Harvard, black and white.

The article also featured a picture of black students congregating together during lunch.  For me, it was true I gravitated towards my fellow students of color.  We ate together, studied together, partied together, and bonded in ways I have never experienced since.  But I saw whites students do the same with their friends and classmates with no outcry from anyone.  I remember at the end of freshman year, my two black roommates and I had the highest GPA in our dorm.  I also remember the look of surprise on the faces of too many when our residence counselor announced it.

In 1969, Harvard admitted the first freshman class with over 100 black students.  I was only four years removed from that watershed moment signaling the college’s determination to diversify its ranks. Still, the presumption of weakness became an obstacle I would have to overcome in many classes.  It was a burden I should not have had to bear. Despite having made the Dean’s List for six semesters and founding Diaspora, Harvard’s first African America literary journal, I took a voluntary leave after junior year and only returned in 2002 for a 25th class reunion.

With our children in tow, my wife and I again walked Harvard Yard, past the inspiring statue of John Harvard, and I remembered how special that trek had seemed to me that first time, how excited I was to become part of it all.  My joy turned into something else as time passed, but I imagine it is a different experience now.  My student tells me how impressed he was with the diversity he encountered on a recent college visit.

Back in 1998, my oldest opted to attend Yale and turned down Harvard.  At the time, she had received a very large scholarship from an outside source, and the college indicated her aid package would be reduced accordingly.  The next year, Harvard abandoned that practice. Yesterday, I learned that families earning $65,000 or less can attend Harvard without cost.  I am certain these policies have increased the income diversity I often found lacking when I went there.

Still, the current “I, too, am Harvard” campaign suggests that students of color still must contend with the cultural naiveté of others.  Perhaps such clashes are inevitable, but I wish black students in particular did not have to suffer the lowered expectations of others as they herd their own dreams.

Yesterday, as the young man and I chatted on the terrace, I thought of all my students facing the journey he is about to undertake.  In the past, most have elected to attend historically black colleges and universities.  I sense that is changing slightly as the new century unfolds.  My middle daughter attended Temple, and the youngest is a Dean’s List student at Trinity University here in DC, slated to graduate in the spring.  I believe each found the place they needed to be in order to unfold as young adults with educated minds and nurtured intellects.

It is the wish I have for this young man.  When he chooses to enter that intoxicating Yard (and I am confident he will be admitted), I am hoping he will find the opened books and unbarred gates he seeks and deserves.

–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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