Gabrielle stared across the room and straight at me.
“The article says you go to Harvard,” she began.
“So, how did you get in?”
There it was again, that question. Deafening silence enveloped the room. It was awkward, uncomfortable, unbearable. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve been asked this question a number of times. Usually I just shrug it off. Sometimes a sarcastic remark will do. In the space of 30 seconds I figure I don’t have near enough time to explain that I have no earthly idea how I got in, how I never really planned on getting in (or for that matter, going) to Harvard, that it was all just a grand serendipitous mistake… that had changed my life forever without my even knowing it at the time. But all that is not something you can articulate in the space of 30 seconds, least of all when you have a little girl staring you down, hope glistening in her eyes as she tells you a piece of her story, how she hasn’t had the easiest family life, how all she really wants is to go to Harvard because they have the best Economics program around.
I stumbled in my response.
I still don’t know what to say when people drop the H-bomb around me. On campus, it doesn’t matter. It’s easy to forget. I’ve found that good or bad, helpful or hurtful, nearly everyone has some relationship with Harvard – whether they’ve grown up with it or read about it in Catcher in the Rye, whether they’ve seen Legally Blonde or met someone who went here.
Harvard to me was always that fictitious entity, that place in a novel that I could read about. I’ll be honest, I never really dreamed about it. At all. I knew no one who went here. It was the stuff of dreams – not good or bad dreams, just dreams. I didn’t expect that in the real world people would assume things about me based on the name of the school I go to – or maybe I expected it but just didn’t understand then how it would impact me.
There are moments when I am really really proud of the fact that I go here. When I get to take my uncle through Widener Library and show him and his friends the Gutenberg Bible. When I first met my homestay mother in Japan and her face lit up; we didn’t speak the same language but she could place where I came from on a map because she knew where Harvard was. When I walked into that classroom last Friday and met Gabrielle, when she looked at me and said I’m proud of you – no little girl has ever told me that – and when she said I inspired her.
Truth is, I’m not exactly sure how I got into Harvard. I believe in hard work – and good luck. I believe that we end up where we’re meant to be, or if we don’t, that we find ourselves back to where we should be. I am convinced that I’ve hit the lottery in many things in my life – with my parents, my friends, my family, and yes, Harvard. And I know that with all these blessings comes a responsibility not to burrow in and hide, wishing that the world would disappear when a little girl from Brooklyn, New York asks me of all things how I got to where I never thought I’d be. My responsibility is to own up to what I am responsible for – successes and failures- and to embrace them, to live in them, to share them. Gabrielle reminded me of all this that day. In the 30 seconds I had to tell her how I got in, I ambled to reframe the entire question. I wanted to tell her that she could work hard and get somewhere (even though as I get older it’s harder to believe that hard work alone is enough.) I wanted to tell her that Harvard very well might not be where she ended up – but that too would be ok, that she would end up where she needed to be. I wanted to honor her big dreams and leave her with hope, but I also wanted to keep reality in focus.
I’m not sure if I succeeded. In any or in all of this. But on Friday a little girl in Brooklyn, New York reminded me that when that question is asked, for the sake of little girls like her who look like me, I can’t shrug it off. Because shrugging it off would mean telling her that getting here isn’t as important as maybe she thinks it is – or worse yet, that it is near impossible. Shrugging it off would mean not answering her real question. And to that question, there’s only really one answer that I want to give: you know, I did get into Harvard and maybe you will too. But more than anything I believe that if you do work hard, really hard, if you follow your passions, and if you dig in, deep, you’ll end up where you’re meant to be. Even if you don’t quite know it at the time.