She Said, Z Said: Harvard Rituals Blend Past, Present for Outsiders to Ridicule
Alums counter that only insiders can appreciate the Crimson tide of traditions — unless they're inside a maximum-security federal prison
She: Nobody does pomp and circumstance like you people do.
Z: You people? What’s that supposed to mean?
She: Harvard grads.
Z: Oh. OK.
She: A group of otherwise incredibly smart people with the dorkiest set of celebration rituals I’ve ever seen.
She: That’s the kindest adjective I can come up with to describe the excitement of being woken up by bagpipes at 7 in the morning.
Z: We could add that to our Sunday routine, if you’d like.
She: Bagpipes followed by a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” followed by a full morning of drumming and marching and cheering. Harvard Yard was giddy with noise.
Z: Which is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The only people who get to sleep in the dorms in Harvard Yard are freshmen, and alumni at their 25th reunion. And only the alumni are there to be woken up for graduation day.
She: Don’t forget their lucky, lucky wives, who also get the huge privilege of walking up five flights of stairs to their bunk beds. With the bonus thrill of having to go back downstairs to the single, shared bathroom on the fourth floor.
Z: I’m just saying.
She: You, who usually mocks anything that others find worthy of reverence, totally bought into the pomp and circumstance of it all.
Z: No way. I’m still 100 percent a California boy. History is what you have with girlfriends, not institutions.
She: I saw you twitch when the bagpipes passed by in the dining hall at breakfast. Two cocktails and I still can’t get you into the conga line on a cruise ship, but you’re dying to join in on that bagpipe procession before I’ve even finished my first cup of coffee. Who knew that returning to Harvard would make you such a zany morning person?
Z: Nooo. I jumped because I spilled a cheese blintz and some scrod on my lap.
She: You even went to graduation.
Z: Only because we got to process in a procession. It was fun walking with my classmates and making a grand entrance into the outdoor Tercentenary Theater, even if it was two hours before anything happened.
She: That’s what you jumped into line for?
Z: That, and endless brass band renditions of “Harvadiana” and “Radcliffe, Now We Rise to Greet Thee.”
She: Did one of the jolly men in the top hats and long-tailed tuxedo jackets seat you at graduation?
Z: If you’re referring to the Committee for the Happy Observance of Commencement, yes. They were most helpful.
She: Seriously? That’s what those dudes in the striped pants and the chicks with the fancy hats are called? Wow. Plus, I bet they have to make substantial donations to the alumni association for the privilege of looking so silly.
Z: It’s not that bad. In addition, the Sheriff of Middlesex was in fine form, opening the proceedings with a rousing three taps of his silver-tipped staff, and a booming, “... the meeting will be ... in oooorder!”
She: I can’t believe I missed that part. Oh, no, that’s right. I was in my fifth-floor servants quarters, not allowed in to the graduation of the “specialist place on earth.”
Z: You got invited to the afternoon ceremony.
She: Where I heard an awful lot about how special everything and everyone at Harvard was. A little too much pomp pimping for my taste.
Z: The place had almost 150 years of history before America even existed. Cut it some slack.
She: Oh, it was a fascinating experience. It really was great fun, but all of the pomp and circumstance stuff felt like I was observing some sort of alien tribe on Mars or Papua New Guinea. I also never quite realized how much pressure Harvard puts on its alumni.
Z: Like what?
She: Like the 50th reunion alums’ reaction to their most famous classmate’s red book entry. As though having the Unabomber as a classmate besmirched the fine institution of Harvard.
Z: I think everyone was just annoyed that he had the most eye-catching entry in the class report. Those things are really hard to write.
She: He was telling it like it is: Occupation: Prisoner. Awards: Eight life sentences.
Z: I wonder if he sent in the $100 voluntary remittance?
She: And then there was the entire panel on “Harvard’s Long Shadow: Coping With Expectations of Greatness.”
Z: It’s like they’re trying to take all the fun out of insecurity.
She: I finally figured out why they have all those silly outfits and bagpipe processions.
Z: Mindless tradition?
She: Brilliant tradition. Harvard uses all of the pomp and circumstance to drown out the whining voices of the inner critics who are constantly berating Harvard alumni for not living up to the legacy of their ancestors.
Z: That’s the advantage of coming from a family of all UCSB Gauchos.
She: Present company excluded, of course.
Z: That, and I still presume to greatness.
She: Yep, my husband and Ted Kaczynski, the only two legendary Harvard students not to succumb to the lure of insecurity.
Z: Yes, dear.