Sunday, April 18, 2010

Just, y'know, another week at Harvard.

This was the last week of classes, that time of year when students' exam stresses officially kick in and professors, done trying to cram whatever last material they had planned into their lectures, dispense all their best humor and most poignant advice about law and life.

But I've written about all that here before, and what I'm really itching to tell you about is a few opportunities I've had lately - opportunities of the special, extra-ridiculously-great variety that could only happen at Harvard.

First, there was an event last Friday that Russell heard about through work and knew I'd be overjoyed to see. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard was awarding its Lifetime Achievement in Cultural Humanism prize, and the recipients were… drumroll please… THE MYTHBUSTERS.

For any of you unfortunate enough not to know, these are two guys named Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman whose show on the Discovery Channel employs lots of robotics, crash-test dummies, and of course explosions in the name of testing things like whether duck quacks echo or if pennies on railroad tracks derail trains.

Basically, these guys are huge celebrities in the nerd community and the objects of one of my bigger TV crushes of all time. Apparently they're also both atheists, and they were being honored for the way they’ve promoted the scientific method and made skepticism more mainstream. There was standing room only in the gorgeous Memorial Church (oh, the irony) as they made surprisingly eloquent remarks on this topic, then fielded a long question-and-answer session about the show.

The entire thing was just freakishly awesome - even better than I imagined when I rushed out and nabbed some of the last advance tickets for the unreal student price of $8. But I particularly loved finding out how much their favorite episodes to make differed from my favorites to watch - how can they prefer Lead Balloon and Exploding Water Heater to Explosive Decompression and Alcatraz Escape??

The bottom line here is, when your day job is shooting frozen chickens out of homemade cannons and trying to wear through prison bars with salsa - in sunny California - what besides Harvard could possibly entice you to the cold, wet north to spend your Friday night sitting in an old church answering questions about that job?

At this point, I'm actually reluctant to go on about my next great opportunity this week. But it involves that project with the Boston teenagers I've been dying to tell you about, so the opportunity to catch you up is just too perfect.

I'll start from the beginning: my Community Action class requires an outside community-based project, and this year the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps was scouting for one. They'd been in touch with two former Community Action students whose project was a workshop series with some Cambridge middle-schoolers, and they wanted to do something similar for a group of kids they were supervising as an alternative to detention out of juvenile court.

I jumped on this project literally the moment my professor mentioned it, and soon I had a partner and we were arranging two "get to know you" meetings at the Dorchester community center where the group was based.

We found the teens pretty sullen and withdrawn, but before long were learning interesting things about them anyway - like how most felt less safe inside school than outside in their neighborhoods, and some didn't think they made a positive contribution to their school, but most still thought they could go to law school someday. The key was first giving them a non-verbal way to weigh in, like voting in a show of hands or walking to a placard marked "Agree," "Disagree," "Strongly Agree," or "Strongly Disagree," before asking them to explain why.

Then, this semester, we channeled what we'd learned about them and their interests into some more formal workshops with topics like blame and responsibility, justice, authority, and power. Each week the group would start with the same standoffishness, but eventually open up into lively and profound discussion about their lives and opinions - and it was astonishing to see this happening faster and lasting longer with each passing week.

In the end, we shot and produced a video to share their thoughts with other Harvard students who, we assured them, stood to learn just as much from them as we had. This actually took a lot of persuading, because the group makeup had gradually changed enough that not many of the teens who originally proposed a video were around by the end. To convince the new, more skeptical majority, I wound up making a short example video with some friends asking the teens for their views. After we played it for them, we got a unanimous vote to make one of their own.

It took two sessions to get the footage: one last regular weekly meeting, when to occupy whoever wasn't filming, we brought in a fellow student who works with the Criminal Justice Institute to answer their questions about the courts - he was just awesome with them and they loved him - and one Saturday "crunch session" to brainstorm the last of the content and get it shot.

So that's what I did last Wednesday night: I screened the 15-minute video I'd edited for a group of about 25 Community Action classmates, friends involved with the example video, RFK staff members, and the teens themselves. We used a big, beautiful room in Austin Hall and had questions, discussion, and mingling over cheese and fruit and desserts. I think it went well, but it went by in a total blur I can't entirely assess. In any case, I did what I set out to do and couldn't be prouder.

The last opportunity I want to mention concerns my brilliant, off-the-wall Corporations professor - and yeah, I guess it falls into the inspirational last-week-of-class category I figured I would avoid. It's the opportunity to hear him read this amazing poem by Naomi Shihab Nye at the close of Friday's class:


The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and is not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

This is the same guy who, I recently learned, wrote this incredible blog post every woman should read, and whose class made me laugh harder and more often than all my other classes in my whole education combined while, yes, teaching me a fair amount about corporations too. At the risk of letting this post get absolutely barf-inducingly gushy about Harvard - if it wasn't already - I just feel so privileged to have had this semester with him. I'm going to miss it so much!

Me, miss Corporations? Talk about things that could only happen at Harvard.


mimi said...

Way cool.

bella said...

your updated blog is adorable!!! i love it!!!

i miss you too lady! i wont really be in tejas this summer, but i would love to see you up north either before or when you get back. you guys should come back and visit me :) or i can take the bus to boston on a long weekend.