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Small Gestures

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | January-February 1985

A student in considerable distress came to see me a couple of years ago. She was a freshman. She had taken my undergraduate course in the fall semester. Now it was April, and she was ready to quit Harvard College. I asked her why. At first she spoke of the general difficulties she’d experienced as a particular young woman — someone who grew up in a factory town, whose father worked on an assembly line, having never finished high school, and whose mother hadn’t either, because she went to work in a department store, full time, at 16. I tried hard to explain to her that things would change, that she would feel more comfortable with a strange and occasionally forbidding place over the course of time.

I also tried to address the matter of class — a young person’s understandable anxieties as she tri­ed to comprehend and get along, day after day, in a world of wealth and power. “I know,” she told me at one point, “that I’m not the first person who’s poor and who’s managed to get through this school, but I don’t seem to have what it takes.” She paused, then emphasized her conviction with a terse repetition: “I just don’t have what it takes.”

We went on further. I asked her the usual questions someone like me thinks to put before his students in trouble. Had she made any reasonably good friends? Had she found any enjoyable activ­ities? Was there a possible field of (academic) con­centration which tempted her? She had, indeed, found a friend or two. She had always liked to sing, and so she had found pleasure in the univer­sity choir. Yes, she liked history, especially Ameri­can history, and she would major in that — if she stayed. But she doubted she would. Why? She pull­ed back from our conversation when I asked that question. Soon she was sobbing, and I was nervous­ly, guiltily trying to figure out what was wrong — with her, and quite possibly with me as someone trying to be of help to her.

Eventually I heard this: “I’ve had some terri­ble times here. The worst of them is being a clean­ing lady for some of these rich guys here. They are unbelievably arrogant, and I hate this way of earn­ing money.” As part of her “scholarship package,” she scrubbed the bathrooms of other students. I could certainly agree with her; and had long advo­cated that all students be required to do such work — lest, yet again, the prerogatives of money assert themselves baldly in this everyday manner. “What it comes to,” she pointed out to me, “is that the poor here sweep up after the rich. And they keep talking about a ‘community’ here, and we’re all supposedly part of it.”

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