Memories of ‘The Yard’By Anthony Alden Sy Aguilar
Philippine Daily Inquirer
It was Thanksgiving Day in the US, and I came from the Annual Thanksgiving dinner of the Harvard Club of the Philippines. One of our special guests for the evening was Jessica Marie “Aika” Robredo, eldest daughter of the late and much-lamented Secretary Jesse Robredo, and this delightful, well-spoken young woman shared with us her memories of life in Boston when the entire Robredo family moved there for a year while Secretary Jesse pursued his master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government during the 1998-1999 school year. Listening to Aika Robredo’s happy stories of the year they spent in Boston (she was in fifth grade at the time) brought to mind a very special year that I spent in the East Coast.
A few weeks ago, I was in Boston to visit family and friends, and when one is in Boston, one shouldn’t miss the chance to visit that legendary institution of learning and wisdom, Harvard University. As an alumnus, I simply couldn’t miss this chance to return to my alma mater, and take a little stroll down memory lane. And so, for the second time after graduating in 2001, I found myself standing in the middle of Harvard Yard once again, being gently bombarded by feelings of déjà vu and realizing once again how lucky I was to have been given the chance to study at one of the world’s most respected universities.
My first glimpse of Harvard University was in July of 1995, when I arrived in Cambridge to begin my classes at the Arthur D. Little School of Management. I’d enrolled in the ADL’s one-year master’s degree program in management, and it was inevitable that I’d pass by the Harvard campus on my way to school at the ADL.
So I hied myself off one weekend to Harvard Yard, and armed with some basic knowledge I’d culled from a guidebook, I walked through the famous Johnston Gate and found myself in the Old Yard. You can’t help but get a sense of the history of Harvard—stepping through the Johnston Gate, completed in 1889, is like stepping back more than hundred years into the past.
No one can visit the Harvard campus, however, without paying the statue of “John Harvard,” the university’s first important donor, a brief visit. I dutifully strode over to that bronze figure, and I remember how, as I stood there looking up at him, I overheard a guide saying to a group of fascinated tourists that there was a popular tradition among Harvard students and visitors alike that touching the statue’s left foot would bring good luck—and acceptance into the university. Because I’d always dreamed of attending Harvard, I promptly walked up to the statue and rubbed its left foot. That explained why, I thought later, “Mr. Harvard’s” left shoe was a shiny piece of work, in comparison to the time-darkened bronze of the rest of him.
As a student, I would later learn that some tour guides gave the John Harvard statue, which bears the inscription “John Harvard – Founder – 1638” on its rather flippant nickname “the Statue of Three Lies,” on account of three “untruths” in the inscription: first, that Harvard was founded in 1638, when in fact it was established in 1636; second, that John Harvard was the founder, when in truth Harvard College was founded by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; and third, that the statue is a portrait of John Harvard, when the truth is that sculptor Daniel Chester French used Harvard student (and later US District Attorney and Representative for Massachusetts) Sherman Hoar as his inspiration for the statue’s face. I’ve often thought it was rather ironic that the John Harvard statue came to be known for those three “lies,” the Harvard motto being the word “Veritas.”
In any case, three lies or not, there must’ve been quite a bit of truth to that “rub-the-shoe” tradition, because five years after that first visit to Harvard, I became a student there myself, when I qualified for the one-year post-graduate course in International Taxation at the Harvard Law School. Since I wanted to make the most of that one year I would be at Harvard Law, I decided to apply for a double degree at the Kennedy School of Government, and thank God I was accepted for the master’s degree program in public administration. And so off I went, back to Massachusetts, but this time, to walk into Harvard Yard not as a tourist, but as a student.
This time around, the Peabody Terraces was my home away from home for the two years I spent at Harvard. My good friend and former fellow-revenuer Rolando “Jon” Ligon (himself a student at the Law and Kennedy School) and I were assigned an apartment on the 11th floor, and as luck would have it, our rooms had a great view of the Charles River.
Because I wanted to keep as fit as possible, during the summer term I would make the 45-minute walk from the Peabody to Harvard Law School, entering the campus through the 1890, or the Dexter, Gate. This particular entryway was very memorable to me, being a government employee at the time, because as you entered or left the campus, the words of former Harvard University president Charles Elliot were a solemn reminder of both the privilege and responsibility of the educated person. Entering the university, one would read the words “Enter to grow in wisdom,” while those who left the campus would be reminded to “depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”
Some of my favorite haunts were the hodgepodge of old bookstores where I would happily sit for hours, surrounded by that comforting and strangely nostalgic smell of old, leather-bound books. I was living on a very tight budget and I couldn’t afford to buy those beautiful old books, so I would park myself in a quiet corner of one bookstore and read to my heart’s content.
The fall term marked the beginning of my classes at the Harvard Kennedy School. Life at both the Law School and the Kennedy School was a challenge, and sometimes I wonder how I survived taking two programs at the same time.
I remember spending many a long evening at the libraries—either the Law Library at Langdell Hall, or the Kennedy School Library itself. Burning the midnight oil was an almost daily practice for me, and I would usually leave the libraries at the “witching hour”—the Law School Library, in fact, is usually open until 2 a.m. during the fall and spring terms, and there were also quite a few students who, like me, were putting in long hours at the library.
By and large, though, the streets were relatively quiet when I walked home from those late-night library sessions—and yes, it was possible to walk home even at that ungodly hour, because there weren’t any muggers or petty thieves around. The bitter cold of the Boston winter put paid to those late-night strolls, though, and forced me to take the shuttle home to the Peabody.
Being a child of the tropics, it was definitely an experience to witness all the four seasons while I was at Harvard. Spring and summer were the most agreeable times of the year for me, because it was fun to walk around campus and along the streets of Cambridge.
Sadly, the colors of autumn would be gone all too soon, and it was hard to escape the creeping loneliness of the shorter days and the sight of the bare elm trees against the gray skies. Winter, I have to admit, was the worst time of the year, because of the biting cold and the snow that covered the yards, making the trek from the Peabody to the Kennedy School and Law School even longer and not as enjoyable because the campus would be deserted, many of the students having gone home for the Christmas holidays.
I remember feeling forlorn and rather sorry for myself during the Christmases I spent in Boston, because I missed my family terribly. I think my most vivid memories of those holidays were endless vistas of white, and miles of silent streets—all the stores and restaurants were closed, so we had to make sure that we had a good stock of groceries to see us through the holidays. Thank goodness Jon and our Law School buddy Teddy Kalaw were on hand to share the holidays with me when I was at Harvard. We did what we could to cheer each other up, but I think we all knew that nothing would ever replace the Pinoy Christmas, with its promise of warmth, laughter and delicious food, and most importantly, the joy of attending the Misa de Gallo and the Midnight Mass with our nearest and dearest.
Life has taken me along some very interesting roads since I left Harvard in 2001, but I’ll always look upon the year I spent there as one of the happiest and most fulfilling times of my life.
As John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself,” and indeed, growing in knowledge should always help us to move forward in life and to mature as individuals.
Going through Harvard degree programs was a challenge, to say the least, but when the chance was offered to me to go to Harvard Law I knew I couldn’t let it slip away. My father had set great store by giving his children the best education possible, and I could never, ever forget how he would always say to me and my siblings, “if you have an opportunity to learn, grab it and study like there’s no tomorrow; the fruits of your education will be your own, and no one can take them away from you.” And my mother… who is the soul of patience and understanding, never failed to give all of us unfailing moral support and motivation in our studies, and who—without a word to my father—would sometimes send me a spot of funds to add to my allowance. With so profound an investment from my parents, how could I then, in conscience, pass upon the chance to study at Harvard itself, the dream of so many students, academics and scholars?
As Charles Elliot said, though, every Harvard student must leave the university prepared to serve his country and his fellowmen. And that, I believe, is the essence not only of a Harvard education, but of education itself: to gain not only knowledge, but enlightenment, and the understanding that all learning is a gift from God and should therefore be used for the greater good of mankind.
This is why I hope that my fellow Pinoys who leave to study at Harvard will return home to share what they have learned, and help ensure a prosperous future and a life of dignity for our people. Not everyone is privileged with the chance to study at Harvard, and it is in this regard that our Lord’s admonition “To whom much is given, much will be expected,” rings ever true. With education comes responsibility, and the sacred charge to ensure that whatever knowledge we gain will be tempered by humility, guided by wisdom, and inspired by compassion for our fellowmen.
And that is the great truth that must always inspire not only the Harvardians, but every person who seeks the gift of learning.
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is a senior partner of The Tax Offices of Romero, Aguilar & Associates and member of the MAP national issues committee and MAP committee on taxation. Feedback at email@example.com. For previous articles, visit <map.org.ph>.)