Halfway Heaven (Melanie Thernstrom)

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  Harvard's commencement is among the most festive in the land. By the first week of June the square of lawn between Widener Library and Memorial Chapel has been reseeded and grown new and green again. A large pastel tent has been erected, as if in preparation for an enormous wedding, and red silk flags are strung all around on trees, bearing the Harvard motto "Veritas" and the insignia of each of the Harvard houses where undergraduates live. World eminences give historic speeches--Mother Teresa, Colin Powell, Václav Havel. The Marshall Plan was announced at the commencement of 1947.

The whole of undergraduate life at Harvard seems to lead toward the moment of graduation. With a ninety-seven percent graduation rate--among the highest in the country--students understand that to attend Harvard is to have the opportunity to graduate from Harvard, and all that that bestows upon one. On one's résumé, at work, on a blind date, it is a fact that connotes not so much intelligence as chosenness--a destiny to do significant, lucrative work, a kind of good luck charm whose spell is always new.

As the seniors are welcomed to the company of educated men and women, their parents clap and cry--it is their laudes too. Among the most touching sights are the immigrant parents: gathered around their sons and daughters, the American Dream seems alight in their faces--everything they journeyed to this country for accomplished in a moment.

The speaker for the 1996 commencement--Harvard's three-hundred-forty-fifth--is Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health. He gives an earnest account of his journey from studying literature at Harvard to committing to medicine when he realized the power medicine has to alleviate human suffering. He describes the enormous progress of medicine in his lifetime--the development of the kidney transplant and the cure of polio, the crippling disease of his childhood--and reminds the audience how much there is still to be done. He enjoins the new graduates to enlist in the front lines on the battlefields of science.

There is no reference, in his speech or throughout the long commencement day, to two girls who are not there to graduate with their class, and whose fate reflects a problem that has not disappeared with the progress of medicine: the problem of evil.

Sinedu had come to see me once, when she was a freshman, in the crowded first few days of the 1992 spring term. I had spent the preceding few days reading a hundred applications in order to choose a dozen students for a seminar on autobiographical writing I was teaching in the English Department. The list of successful applicants had been posted on the door. It was an unfortunate system--that in order to take a writing class to learn you had to prove you were already accomplished--but it was the way many things were done at Harvard.

I remember my own anxiety as an undergraduate applying to creative writing courses, reassuring myself I had published poetry to submit with my application. But I remember the shock I had felt whenever I tried to explore something new at college, only to discover it was necessary to compete with students who were already well versed--to take comparative literature courses with students who had gone to boarding school in Paris or Milan. Even extra-curricular activities were competitive. In order to join the Advocate--a literary magazine that had published the early work of e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, and Norman Mailer--one had to demonstrate sufficient command of contemporary letters by writing mock reviews of poetry or fiction for six weeks, and then undergoing an interview by a board of peers.

There was a light knock on the door and Sinedu came in. She was small with large, heavy-lidded eyes and an air of nervous decorum. "I saw my name wasn't on the list," she told me. I tried to recall her writing sample: it had made no impression. In addition, upper classmen had priority in applying to the class.

"In Ethiopia where I come from I have seen terrible violence and poverty and things no one would understand," she told me, leaning forward slightly, her voice low and self-dramatizing. Another rich Harvard student from the third world, I decided impatiently: they speak of the suffering of their countrymen and turn out to be royalty. I told her to apply again another year. She rose to go.

"You could write something and send it to me. I'm always happy to read students' work," I called guiltily after her. She never would, I knew, and I'd never follow up. I'd be busy with the students I had chosen.

Eighteen months later, I was spending a long weekend in a small town in New Hampshire when my mother called to tell me something terrible had happened: a Harvard student--a Dunster House student--had killed her roommate and both girls were now dead. "You didn't know them, did you?" she asked.

"No," I said. "Why would I?" Later I went and got the newspapers and stared at the picture of Sinedu, recognition slowly dawning.

In the days that followed, the significance of the coincidence grew in my mind as I rethought the brief encounter again and again, trying to recall the forgotten nuances of her words. Sinedu was a premedical biology major; her transcript showed nothing more than required humanities courses. No one I spoke to remembered her having been interested in creative writing. Why had she come to me? What had she wanted to express that had made her so eager to take the class? How intimately I would have known her--as I knew my other students--had I admitted her to the class! Why hadn't I? I made exceptions to rules all the time; my classes were filled with extra students. I had felt a slight sense of relief when she left the office. I was one in a long line of people--as it turned out--whom Sinedu had reached out to and who did not respond to her. I had missed my chance to be her writing teacher--to help her tell her own stories. But she left behind a story, dark and cryptic--one I wanted to decipher.

I would have to go to Ethiopia, I realized. There was no one in America who knew her.
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Excerpted from Halfway Heaven by Melanie Thernstrom. Copyright © 1997 by Melanie Thernstrom. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.