Harvard stirs insecurities for the prince, too

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 25, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- My friend Suzy Ricklen and I arrive at Harvard University, along with Prince Frederick of Denmark, with certain misgivings. Owing to our pathetic academic backgrounds (OK, OK, it's mostly my pathetic academic background), Suzy and I are feeling a little insecure about visiting America's most distinguished scholarly institution.

Prince Frederick is feeling a little insecure mainly because so many commoner riff-raff around Harvard are hollering at him.

I wish to sympathize with the prince, but frankly I got troubles of my own. We arrive at Harvard knowing it is the nation's premier place for smart people, and worry that they'll check our old grade point averages at the front gate and turn us away like immigrants whose pedigree papers aren't in order.

The prince's problem is a little different. He's got the pedigree, and he seems to be a smart enough fellow, as Harvard has accepted him for studies.

His problem is too much money. Somehow, royal wealth aside, Prince Frederick's folks managed to finagle him a rent-controlled apartment just off campus.

"Outrageous," the outraged have cried. "Rent-controlled apartments are meant for poor people."

But see, here's where I sympathize with the prince. Unreal estate prices being the way they are around this high-priced town, the prince would be living in some rooms in a peeling gray wood-frame house near Harvard Square that is nobody's idea of luxury.

And he would pay $1,905 a month.

"And this is rent-controlled?" says Suzy.

"Let's go home," I say.

"Because of the prince?" she asks.

"Because I feel out of place," I explain.

I do not wish to make too much of this, but I major in insecurity when it comes to smart people. I didn't go to Harvard, I went to the University of Maryland, where it took me 4 1/2 years to graduate and my grades weren't much different from Dan Quayle's.

(Of course, Quayle probably went to class. In my crowd, the actual attending of classes was considered a form of cheating.)

"I want to see what Harvard looks like," says Suzy. "I'll bet it's charming."

She's faking it. She went to Maryland, too, and shares an academic distinction of mine: We both failed geology and, taking it a second time and having all the class notes in advance, we each managed to achieve the brilliantly high grade of D.

"What if we get to Harvard and a geology quiz breaks out?" I ask, grabbing Suzy by the arm. "I'm telling you now, I can't take that course a third time."

By now, we're riding a bus from our hotel in Boston, across the Charles River, and into Cambridge. I'm reading the morning newspapers, in case there's a current events test at the front gate. Suzy is trying to drum up some self-confidence, as she went on from her undergraduate days to get master's degrees from Maryland and from the Johns Hopkins University.

"I know it sounds good," she says. "But what if I get nervous and tell them, 'I went to John Hopkins?' What if I say, 'I could have went to Harvard, if I'd have done gooder in high school.' "

We imagine scenarios in which we overcome our insecurities with comic bravado. We will visit the Harvard bookstore and ask, "Do you have 'Kafka: The Happy Years?' No? They had it at the now-defunct Bay College, I bet."

Or, careful not to dangle any wayward participles, we will puff ourselves up and declare: "You don't have it? This is an outrage up with which we will not put."

But our courage does a major fade when we enter the hallowed grounds of America's oldest university. As students file out of a small classroom in an ivy-covered classroom building, we enter and see a woman professor packing up her notes.

"Where you from?" she asks, smiling sweetly.

"I don't want to get picky with grammar," Suzy whispers to me, "but shouldn't that be, 'From whence have you come?' "

"Baltimore," I tell the professor. Behind her, a blackboard is covered with words in French. I know this, from having taken two years of French at City College.

"Say," I declare, quite full of myself, "that's French, isn't it?"

"Spanish," declares the professor.

"French?" says Suzy, as we beat a hasty retreat across campus beforesomebody decides to deport us. "I'm surprised you didn't say Danish, from thinking about Prince Frederick."

"I knew it was Spanish," I say. "I took three years of Spanish. It's just that this is Harvard. I thought maybe it was some secret Harvard way of teaching French via the Spanish."

Anyway, Harvard was lovely in any language. We went to the school library and saw people reading rare old manuscripts. We slipped into an English classroom and watched a professor explain some ancient and treasured piece of literature. And we ++ went to the school gift shop, where items are so expensive they should be rent-controlled.

A long time ago when he was president, John Kennedy, who went to Harvard, was given an honorary degree from Yale. "Now I have the best of both worlds," he said. "A Harvard education, and a diploma from Yale."

My own children may never get an education from this place, but now they've got the next best thing from the gift shop: a Harvard T- shirt. Let's see Prince Frederick of Denmark top that.

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