“I Went to School in Boston”

When someone tells you the above, it usually means one thing: Harvard grad.

It’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t kind of thing. If you say “I went to Harvard,” you’d better be prepared with a “yeah, the admissions officer was definitely drunk that day, heh,” so as not to seem like you were just waiting to spring that fact on someone to flaunt your intelligence. If you go with the Boston thing and you are asked to elaborate, then you’re screwed even more because the person will undoubtedly think “oh, you think Harvard is so great that you had to hide that fact from me so I wouldn’t feel inferior?”

You can’t win.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that it took weeks, if not months, before they learned I graduated from Harvard. Even amongst you all (my blogging friends), only 5 or 6 of you know this, and I swore you all to secrecy under the threat of being removed from my blogroll (I’m ruthless like that). Hell, even d wife had to find out third-hand from her friend, who found it out through one of my friends.

So why am I telling you this now? I grew up a little bit this past week.

[Mid-post disclaimer: My blog posts are usually funny (or at least I try). This one won’t be. I had an epiphany. And for some whacked reason, I decided that the only way to make it real was to force myself to publish it. Blogger’s Syndrome. I promise I won’t do this often.]

A few months ago, I received an email. It asked if I would be interested in interviewing kids applying for next fall’s freshman class. Something possessed me to say yes. If you know me at all, you know that this makes no sense. Consider the facts:

  • Whenever someone finds out I went to Harvard, the first thing I temper it with is “oh, but I made NO friends there besides my roommates.”
  • Whenever someone asks if I liked going to Harvard I say “it wouldn’t have made any difference in my life had I gone to any other school.”
  • Whenever someone says “you must be smart,” I say “no, I just convinced the right people I was. That’s why I’m in marketing.”
  • Whenever someone says “No way. You?? You totally don’t seem like the type,” I smile proudly.
  • I have not donated any money to the school.
  • I missed my 5th and 10th reunion.
  • I joined the Harvard Club of Southern CA when I moved here in ‘95, went to one event and promptly quit.

With all those wonderful bullet points in my proverbial carry-on baggage, I put on my best marketing dude smile and drove across town to the home of a fellow alum to attend an interviewers orientation. As soon as I pulled up to the house, which really should have had its own zip code, or if not that then at least its own Starbucks, feelings of inadequacy filled my head. Is THIS par for my peers? What have I been doing with my life? I breathed in, I breathed out, I walked in.

The living room was set up with about 60 folding chairs arranged in rows. I promptly went to the far end and took a seat apart from the others, much like I did in so many lecture halls in years past. But unlike in years past, people started sitting around me. And they said hi. And I said hi. And we talked. Like normal people. Like friendly folks. Like people who were all like “what’s up with this crazy ass house? Are we all supposed to have one of these already? Dayum.”

Then the presentation started. As each minute passed, I felt progressively worse. But in a good way. The kind of worse that the Grinch experienced when he realized his evil deeds did nothing to dampen the spirit of Christmas in Whoville.

  • First the school. Ok, so Harvard has bazillions of dollars. But they use those dollars to give the brightest kids in the world the best education they can get, bar none. Only something like 250 (out of 6,000 or so) undergrads paid full tuition last year. Also starting this year, Harvard will foot 100% of the bill to send every single student abroad for one semester. It's like giving every student their own rich uncle.
  • Next, the interviewers. Some of these folks have been interviewing for 20 something years. And one interviewer has only had 2 students get into Harvard in all that time. You don’t do this for a batting average.
  • And the interview itself. Chances are, nine out of ten kids you interview will not be Harvard material. And you’ll know this within five minutes. But the admissions officers and veteran interviewers told us this: make that interview last, and have a real conversation. Why? Because you will likely be the only personal contact they will ever have with Harvard – make it a positive one. Whether they get in or not is irrelevant for you. What’s important is that these kids leave there with something real. With hope, with knowledge, with perspective. Not necessarily about Harvard, but about college or the vast opportunities that lie ahead of them as they pursue their academic careers.

While being thoroughly confused isn’t the best state of mind in which to be operating a motor vehicle on the California freeways, it is exactly what I needed in order to grow up that day. Call it an epiphany or a crazy guy talking to himself (thanks to Bluetooth headsets for helping us maintain a semblance of normalcy as we engage in soliloquies while driving), but it all became painfully clear.

“So what about all the pompous assholes in your dorm and in class who wouldn’t give you the time of day?”
When you’re so wrapped up spending all your time hanging out with your girlfriend (whom you don’t even like), people tend to not connect with you. Hell, you never even took the time to learn their names, even though you’d been in the dorm for 3 years.

“So what about the fact that everyone is just trying to flaunt their cool job when they ask you what you do for a living at alumni events?”
You’re just bitter that you went the easy route and majored in psych as they slaved away at something useful like econ and landed that cool job while you got nothing from campus recruiting and had to take a job you found out of the newspaper classifieds.

“Oh yeah? what’s up with the arrogant jerks who put Harvard window decals on their Mercedes to rub it in that they're doing so well?”
You’ve never seen a USC sticker on a Benz? A Cal State Fullerton sticker on a Benz? A Georgetown sticker? A BC sticker?

“Harvard didn’t have anything to do with my success as a person.”
Have you let it? Have you even tried to do anything with this golden ticket that you’re holding?

June 1994. With my roomate Allen.

I pulled into my driveway a wiser man.

I do have a golden ticket. And I’m damn lucky to have it. I didn’t rob, cheat or steal to get it. It didn’t fall into my lap. I worked damn hard to get it. And my parents worked damned harder to let me get it. And now that I’ve got it, it’ll get me places. Better yet, it can now help me help others get to where they want to be. I can sit here and feel guilty about having it, or I can use it to inspire others.

The admissions officer (also an alum) at the orientation put it best: I'm here not for the income, but the outcome.

I can’t wait to interview these kids. If my being from Harvard makes them listen more intently to what I have to say, then I will make damn sure not to squander this opportunity to get these kids excited about college, itching to challenge their comfort levels and pumped about their future. That’s the kind of pompous asshole I want to be. And I might even buy my first Harvard sweatshirt.

[Make sure to check out other posts about Education at my friend April's blog. Today is her second Blog Blast for Education blog carnival]