Why I don’t drop the ‘H-bomb’



I’ve lived in Boston for five years—two of them spent at Harvard—thankfully unaware that the term “H-bomb” existed. I now know better, thanks to a recent Slate piece, which also taught me that NOT mentioning my place of work is worthy of criticism.

Yes, Ivy League grads sometimes try to hide where they got their degrees. I’m sure a small number of grads do so in a manner that might insult. Yes, it’s a stereotype, and 30 Rock’s Toofer hits the nail on the head to hilarious effect. But there’s a reason this stereotype exists: It’s the result of very real social consequences which—I imagine—those who haven’t experienced don’t know much about.

So let me fill you in: I’m currently a Harvard Ph.D. student. Before that, I got my master’s at another school in Boston (where the department in which I studied ranked around 100 on the U.S. News and World Report list). Before that, I went to a small state school in New Jersey, passing up scholarships to undergrad programs with much better name recognition for practical reasons. Point is: I’ve never been in search of prestige for prestige’s sake. Intelligence is different from quality of education, and both of those are emphatically different from where you went to school.

When I told people I was accepted to Harvard, the responses shocked me. Family members called to congratulate me on being accepted to Harvard “and those other schools that I think are important but I can’t remember the names of.” People I had been close with for years—even some in academe—began treating me differently. My best friend of some 25 years started saying “You’re so smart,” as if being accepted to Harvard instantly made me smarter than I had been the week, month, or decade before.

I wanted to share the joy I felt at being able to work on my dream project with superstars in my field, but very few people could see past the glittery bright lights of “HARVARD” to talk with me-as-me.

Once I started as a full-time student, the problem only got worse.

When I would visit my former local bar in Philly—if I was lucky enough to strike up a conversation without being introduced—the “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” question came up pretty quickly. How I answered had obvious consequences. A reply of “In Boston” usually led to them returning to their beers with an “Oh cool … my friend’s sister goes to BU” or “Oh that sucks … do you always have to watch American League games now?” If I said, “At Harvard,” it tended to lead to them turning on their stools to face me, wide-eyed, with an “Oh wow … you must be really smart.” I wasn’t Allyssa, I was SMART PERSON (TM)—more object than person.

I learned to default to “I go to school in Boston” unless I knew the revelation wasn’t going to derail the conversation. If I’d been talking about one of my many other interests—food, photography, travel, music, or all things beer—I might venture to say “Harvard” because that would be only one of many facets the other person would (hopefully) remember. But if the acquaintance was minutes old, I’d most often say “In Boston.” If pressed with “Where?” I might drop the H-bomb because I didn’t want to seem disingenuous—but always immediately followed with “But I got my master’s at [insert school ranked around 100 here], so I’ve been in Boston [however many] years.”

On rare occasions, I’d answer the “Where?” question with “It doesn’t matter” because I really couldn’t handle the inevitable objectification at that moment.

I’ve since developed a thicker skin, but I still prefer to avoid being objectified by my association with Harvard—which seems to happen about 98% of the time. When I’m introduced to a group as “my friend who goes to Harvard,” I find myself acting differently—dropping unnecessary profanity or otherwise behaving in ways to assert my non-Ivy-ness. My now-ex used to tell me to “use my giant Harvard brain” to figure out something I didn’t get right away. While the response isn’t generally that spiteful, people seem genuinely confused when I don’t grasp a concept or a skill immediately. I reply, “Yup, I go to Harvard”—because I’m still profoundly uncomfortable with the all-around exceptionalism expected of me. What’s the opposite of self-deprecating? Whatever it is, that’s the kind of humor I have to use.

I don’t mean to imply that my life is sooooooooooo haaaaaaaaaaard. I know how fortunate I am—not because I go to Harvard per se, but because I get to work on a project that fulfills me, with advisers who are kinder and more supportive than I could have hoped for, in an environment that allows me to maintain a decent quality of life. I fully accept that I will run into some objectification and stereotyping in my line of work. (Fact: I have a fitted corduroy jacket to which I’ve added satin elbow patches expressly to poke fun at the “stodgy professor” look.)

Still, I don’t want my personhood to immediately become synonymous with a set of preconceived notions if I can help it. That is why I say “I go to school in Boston.” Bottom line: Don’t criticize anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes—even if they’re stereotype-reinforcing boat shoes.

Author Bio: Allyssa J. Metzger is pursuing a Ph.D. in the history of science at Harvard University.