“Touring Harvard, 1986” by Johnson Cheu

Johnson Cheu


We were discussing the college admissions scandals.
She couldn’t understand what would drive the wealthy
to such lengths, falsifying records or emancipating your child
to obtain unneeded financial aid. Dreams, I said, are fragile things
to try to keep intact. How the Disability Services Office at Harvard
occupied a secluded corner of the Administrations building,
the size of a janitor’s closet. The office too small to fit us,
someone came out to meet my dad and me for a dormitory tour.
One had no ramp outside, so after ascending the stairs
into the building, we greeted two Freshman studying in the box
window seat of their first-floor room overlooking the Charles River,
like two Hollywood extras from Rob Lowe’s Oxford Blues.
No elevator in the building, laundry room in the basement.
But really, all you do at Harvard is study anyway, the guide giggled.
Embarrassed, she took us across the river to another dorm,
which had an exterior ramp, but a sunken vestibule with no
ramp, no elevator. The tour guide went looking for assistance.
A young resident emerged, said, Yes, I know, every time
my grandma visits, she can’t come up. Trapped, waiting
in a vestibule, I’ve never seen my dad sadder, more resigned,
more disappointed. Every parent wants their child’s life to be better,
smoother, wants doors gone, or opened more easily, something
my father could not gift me. Fraud is wrong, cheating, wrong.
Other doors I have opened or broken down. My pedigree
has served without Harvard’s name, as will the resumes
of the children of the unscrupulous wealthy.
Still, there has never been a don’t belong, forbidden sign as clear,
never been a lingering what if as much as that trip etched
in my memory, my dreams, how you are just about to knock, hopeful;
your other hand reaching for the knob, for admittance,
until you realize that being an unimagined possibility
leaves you no space, no room to enter.

from Poets Respond
August 4, 2019


Johnson Cheu: “The college admissions scandals including this week’s reports on the financial aid loophole exploited by the wealthy inspired this poem about opportunity/lack thereof within my own college experience from years ago.” (web)

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