John Harvard’s Toe
I had an unremarkable childhood in an equally unremarkable town in totally unremarkable Flyover Country. The two or three of you who read this blog with any regularity are aware of that unremarkable fact. But you’ll shorten your time in Purgatory by continuing to read anyway.
So yes, as my kids like to say, I grew up in Hicksville. But that didn’t stop my self-delusions that I could someday go to Harvard. It took me three tries, but I finally did it.
Coming from a family and a locale with exactly zero Ivy Leaguers as role models, I wasn’t aware of such arcane concepts as Legacy Admissions or Private Schools for Very Very Rich Kids. Nor was I aware that these were the assured ways of getting one’s little pink backside admitted to Harvard.
I first applied to Harvard at age 17 with a merely respectable GPA from a public township high school with no recommendations beyond a form letter from my guidance counselor. I sometimes like to imagine the hilarity with which the Office of Admissions opened that envelope:
Admissions Boffin: “Chip! Oh look, Chip!”
Admissions Maven: “What are you prattling on about, Muffy? It’s most unbecoming.”
Admissions Boffin: “You will not BELIEVE this application! It’s so very droll.”
Admissions Maven: “Is there truly such a place as Skeeterville? Oh, that is quite funny!”
Or something close to that. I’m pretty sure. The second time, I was a much savvier applicant. I was looking for a law school and had buried my tepid high school transcript under a more impressive one from Tulane, including a year at St. Andrews, the top university in Scotland. I was hopeful Chip and Muffy had at least heard of them. I also had a master’s from Syracuse with a Very High GPA Indeed. So I felt certain to be taken, shall we say, more seriously.
Not being a nation-state, Harvard Law School has no obligation to comply with the UN Convention Against Torture. And boy did they—torture me, I mean. Although with online admissions on the Worldwide InterWeb of Things and Stuff this is now probably routine, in 1988 Harvard Law had a system where you could call a number at the Admissions Office and someone would tell you not only the status of your application, but whose desk it was currently on. (I did not puzzle out until later that this was a way that Those Who Are Connected could get Uncle Winnie to call his old friend Prof Vandersmartass and put the fix in for you.) I had admission offers from two Imminently Respectable Law Schools—Georgetown and Northwestern—but come on! I was holding out for Hah-vahd, right?
As the April 30th deadline for admission decisions approached, I was calling daily. “No, Mr. Walker. Assistant Dean Pufnstuf still has your application under consideration.” And it was not until the 29th of April that they told me, “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Walker but <blah, blah> highly competitive <yadda, yadda> only so many seats available <yackety, yackety> we wish you well wherever you go <click>.” What I felt was crystalline-pure, utterly deflated disappointment. Bastards.
I had a fairly good run at Georgetown, which gave me a fine Jesuit legal education that I’ll treasure for life. I toddled off on my new legal career as a judge advocate, the Air Force having very kindly covered my tuition and paid my captain’s salary, and was shipped off for three years to Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Pentagon then sent me for three years to Italy, during which I spent a good deal of time doing my bit to untangle the mess that was the Balkans in the ’90s. Then, as a newly minted major to whom the Air Force owed a solid after those dangerous days in Bosnia, it was the perfect time for me to apply for the coveted—and again fully funded—Master of Laws program. Contrary to its name, this is a post-doc degree that American lawyers can get after their JD degree. The reasons for this stretch to the medieval universities and are lost in the mists of time.
There it was. One more chance. One more bite at the Harvard apple for which I’d been bobbing over two decades. So I applied, this time with a More Interesting Resume and an endorsement letter from the guy who was about to become Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Yeah, I had some juice this time.
And it worked. It was surreal. They still had that same hideous call-in system in 1997, but this time it worked rather quickly in getting me to yes.
In late July, we landed in Philadelphia, en route to Cambridge. I remember watching the first “Austin Powers” movie on hotel pay-per-view because I was jet-lagged. Being in Italy 1994-1997, we’d totally missed the Great Starbucks Breakout, although we’d heard rumors, so the next morning we found the nearest one. Having just spent three years in Italy, where they invented espresso coffee drinks, we found Starbucks… quite unremarkable. And I was really annoyed by the barista interrogating me as to size, shots, flavorings, milk type, etc, etc, etc. (In Italy, it goes like this. Me: “Un cappuccino, per favore.” Coffee Guy: “Si, signore. Subito.” See how it’s done?)
We rented a place in North Cambridge and I headed to Harvard Law School to do whatever I could before classes commenced. This included getting my Harvard student ID. That turned out to be an emotional thing for me. When classes started, I’d ride the bus to Harvard Square, then cut across Harvard Yard to the Law School. Many times those first few weeks when I was crossing the Yard, I’d take out my ID just to look at it. I’m not kidding. I was clearly suffering from Imposter Syndrome and had this subconscious fear Admissions was going to call and say, “Mr. Walker, we’re sorry but we’ve made a terrible mistake…” By then I was 37 years old—but adolescent insecurities die hard.
I had an amazing year at HLS, as the law school is known. I had all the time and academic support and unlimited resources I needed to process some of the intense stuff I’d been through in the Balkans. And Harvard has endless resources. That was probably the biggest difference between HLS and Georgetown Law. There were people and budget for anything you’d ever need or want.
My LLM classmates were almost all foreigners—I was one of just five Americans out of 125 students—and three-quarters were Fulbright Scholars. Yeah, a high-octane bunch, but they were tremendous and some remain close friends. Plus the faculty—whoa. I’d see Alan Dershowitz working the tables in Harkness Commons, although he was off-campus doing television way too often even then. I’d bump into Laurence Tribe in his sleeveless sweater vest holding a big coffee mug, hurrying to a Con Law lecture. He always wore a smile and was friendly to everyone. My thesis advisor was Abe Chayes… who’d been JFK’s legal advisor during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yeah, Harvard really was kinda like that.
It went too fast, that magical time. I’d go back and do it all again, if I could. Which brings me to John Harvard’s toe.
In the Harvard Yard, there’s a big bronze statue that contains on its inscription The Three Big Lies, as we Hah-vahd alumni like to say. “JOHN HARVARD • FOUNDER • 1638.” First, it’s not a statue of John Harvard. No one knows what John Harvard looked like and the blue-blooded guy in the statue was a student selected by the sculptor. Second, John’s not the Founder anyway—he was an English guy who donated his library and half his estate to the newly established college when he died a year after immigrating to America. Third, Harvard wasn’t founded in 1638, the year of Harvard’s bequest, but rather in 1636 by a resolution of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Sometime in the recent past—by Harvard standards at least—guides started telling tourists that Harvard students rub the statue’s toe for luck on exams, resulting in both endless selfies with the Johnny H statue and said toe being rubbed to a shockingly bright shine. Students being students—especially Harvard students—this faux tradition quickly spun off a true tradition. It’s customary now for drunken undergrads routinely to urinate on John Harvard’s toe.
Nevertheless, it’s tradition for every Harvard student to walk by the statue on graduation day as they process to the outdoor ceremony on the Yard. But Harvard students doff their mortarboards to John, knowing better than <ewww> to rub his toe.
After all, who needs luck passing exams on graduation day?