A letter to the graduating seniors, whose semester was cut short by COVID-19.
To the Graduating Class of 2019¾—
I am profoundly sad, and I know we are all sharing this. I know my sadness is nothing special in the greater context of this disaster. I just want to say a few things to you all as I (we) move through our individual stages of the Kubler-Ross model of grief.
As many of you know well, I have built a significant amount of my identity around the idea that I get to work with, hang out with, teach with, laugh with, learn with, eat with, and (today especially) cry with you—YOU—a community of four-hundred-and-twenty Harvard undergraduate students who tend to look up to me for no particularly good reason. It gets me out of bed in the morning, even when I’m not feeling my best. I have never taken this honor for granted.
For my seniors especially, this is devastating. Two years of renovation, and now this?
Normally, we as a community have a intricate and important set of rituals meant to mitigate the process of releasing seniors to the outside world. It’s not just hard for you all to graduate, it is hard for all of us when you leave.
The ritualistic process is complex, and I think I can only explain it in part. It starts with being told, from the time you all are sophomores, that eventually you will graduate. A clear date it set years in advance, and we repeat the graduation-ritual several times in between with the seniors and juniors above you, so that when I finally see my first crop of sophomores graduate—the first class I’ve known for their entire three years—I know what I am in for. Then, in the months preceding May, we make plans. Emails are sent. Commencement is coming! I print stickers. April Fools! Senior prizes need planning. Senior dinner! We have some sort of video game tournament. 1812 Overture!Reading period. May Day! Final Exams. Bacchanalia! I order a few hundred iron-on Lowell patches to give the seniors—I am not above buying your love, Lowell—I never have been.
Then, one week before the Big Day, we set aside the whole week to hug you, day drink, eat pizza, and hang out with you while we all deal with our feelings.
Suddenly—and somehow unexpectedly—a veritable army of families descends on Harvard Square from around the world, filling every hotel, restaurant reservation, and parking spot, all to watch you dress up in funny robes and mortar boards while Elgar plays. We all shake your hands and are filled with a tremendous sense of pride watching you, for having known you—all of you—a sense of pride that drowns out the sadness that sinks in the following day, when the lot of you head out of town.
We repeat this cycle every year.
This year, you are all leaving without any of this ritual taking place, abruptly, in medias res, which is part of why all of this has been so awful. So many bucket lists have been cut short. Instead of Housing Day, we have had the exact opposite of Housing Day. I’ve watched the scene as our home rapidly accepted an apocalyptic mindset. It feels like we are all trying to mash together Housing Day, Graduation Commencement, Senior Week, and a collective funeral, all at once. A meteor might as well be forecast to hit Lowell at 5pm on Sunday.
And there is simply no good news. No “character-building” takeaway that I can try to spin about this experience. No pithy aphorisms to repeat. Every day I learn about yet another way I had not anticipated that this is affecting each of you. We have entered a world where Science Fiction becomes blurred, as it so often does, with science fact.
What is a library without books?
What is a professor without pupils?
What is a tutor without Lowellians?
When this house empties, we’ll get to re-learn a lesson I know well: that Harvard University without students is just a bunch of buildings.
I hope to see all of you again as you move on to the next thing, whatever, whenever, wherever that may be. Unfortunately it is rarely exciting or fun to be labeled “historic.” But you are. You are the Historic Class of 2019¾.
You all mean the world to me.
PS: I’ll try to leave you with a pithy aphorism nonetheless—from Melville, who did not realize when he wrote it is about the soul Lowell House.
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” (Moby-Dick, Ch. 96, “The Try-Works“)