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Not easy for Harvard grads to say they went there

Harvard graduates, class of 2012, marched across Massachusetts Avenue Thursday. Harvard graduates, class of 2012, marched across Massachusetts Avenue Thursday. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / May 28, 2012
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CAMBRIDGE - On Thursday afternoon, Jeanne Mack stood in her cap and gown, just outside the gates to Harvard Yard, a fresh member of the real world. She had just graduated from college.

Which one? Well, she says, if a stranger were to ask her, she might stumble around for a bit, take a hard swallow.

“I’ll say near Boston,’’ Mack said, the mortar board still tilted on her brow. “I try to be as general as possible and move on.’’

She does not like dropping the H-bomb, which is how Harvard students and alumni describe the moment they use the name of their university.

It’s a loaded word. And everyone who has ever been a student at Harvard University - the school minted about 7,000 new graduates this month - is acutely aware of the perils of using it. They have been through it many times, seen the bomb explode in different ways. Each has an approach, goals for how it should go off.

When confronted with questions about their education, many elect simply for a kind of dodge, the most famous being the Boston method. “I went to school in Boston.’’ Sometimes it’s “near Boston.’’ Or perhaps even “Cambridge.’’

That almost never works.

“Only Harvard people say Boston,’’ said Nancy Redd, class of 2003, who went on to be Miss Virginia and a best-selling author. “You look a little suspect.’’

There is no question that saying the word, however it comes out, has an impact on people.

Mack is proud of her accomplishment, but says she does not like dropping the H-bomb because she feels that it turns the focus to so many things out of her control. “I guess there’s also an undertone of wondering if people will think I’m a snob because I go here,’’ she said, before catching herself. “Or, I should say, went here.’’

She is far from alone in being nervous about the H-bomb. Although the pop culture image of Harvard people is that they are shamelessly throwing it around, most students and graduates say the reality is the opposite.

When Al Jean, the executive producer in charge of “The Simpsons,’’ graduated from high school in Michigan, some people thought he was going to nearby Albion College, because of the way he said, “Oh, I’ll be in college,’’ to those who asked what he was doing the following year. “I was so shy about it,’’ he said. “And it was so labored.’’

Senator Scott Brown wants everyone to know that his chief opponent, Elizabeth Warren, is a Harvard Law professor. Mitt Romney’s camp loves the “Harvard faculty lounge’’ metaphor for the Obama administration, though Romney and a lot of his staff are also Harvard grads.

When Charlie Baker, class of 1979, ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2010, he would note his local ties by talking about how he grew up in Needham and went to college “around here.’’

At a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama took the show when talking about the things he shares in common with Romney. “We also both have degrees from Harvard,’’ the president said. “I have one. He has two. What a snob.’’

Mentioning Harvard when not forced to is seen by many as violating an unspoken rule. “It’s about false modesty,’’ said Jessica Mayer, who went to Harvard Law. “The code is to pretend to avoid saying it at all costs.’’

People can say it is not a big deal to go to Harvard, but that would just be pretending, Mayer said. She went to Princeton as an undergrad, and said the reaction to that word is nothing compared with Harvard.

And with the H-bomb comes the expectation of the Harvard brand. Mayer, now a mother, said it is a power move to bring it up to the moms in the carpool lane in Weston, Fla. “When I mention Harvard, I know I’m calling attention to what’s coming out of my mouth. And after you say it, you’d better have something important to say. You’ve got a very small opportunity to prove your worth.’’

Don Chiofaro - the developer who, when he was trying to build International Place in the 1980s, famously walked into a meeting at the Boston Redevelopment Authority wearing his Harvard football jersey and carrying a boombox playing the “Rocky’’ soundtrack - said he is, surprisingly, very cautious about introducing Harvard into conversations. (He insists the BRA stunt was more of a statement that it was “game time.’’)

“Harvard is a statement, and it’s not necessarily the first, second, or third thing I want someone to know about myself,’’ Chiofaro said. “It’s a distinction that separates you, and it’s easy for people to make the leap to thinking that means you think you’re better than them.’’

At the start of the most recent school year, the Harvard Crimson ran an editorial by a freshman named Wyatt Troia about the perils of exploding the H-bomb, or even wearing Harvard-emblazoned gear in public. His message was simple: Don’t advertise it, but don’t avoid it when asked. And definitely don’t do the “Boston’’ thing.

Troia said he wrote the piece because he was feeling that familiar push-pull of being proud of his accomplishment and feeling like he was not allowed to be.

Viveca Gardiner, a youth circus producer who graduated in 1988, remembers the change that occurred around her when she was accepted to the school.

“You work so hard for it the first 18 years, and everyone encourages you, and then everyone is real nasty right after it,’’ she said. “The switch is weird. If somebody asks you straightforward and you answer ‘Harvard,’ they’ll act like you’re being snobby for answering the question you were asked. It’s a first-world problem; I don’t feel sorry for us that other people are acting that way. But it’s not about me.’’

Still, most admit that although the majority of Harvard students and grads play it subtle, there are those who do not. Plenty of people explode it with impunity; there’s a reason, they say, that the stereotype exists.

Perhaps the most shameless H-bomb dropper of all time is the Toofer character (as in two for one; he’s a Harvard grad and also black) on NBC’s “30 Rock.’’ His Harvard pedigree is always out in front of him.

When “30 Rock’’ did a version of the “Boston’’ method of avoiding the H-bomb on the show, Keith Powell, the actor who plays him, said he approached it in a vain way, as if the character were saying, “I’ll make life easier for you by not telling you where I’m from.’’ The bit ends with Toofer saying, “No, not Tufts.’’

Thanks to the endless jet stream of comedic writers from the Harvard Lampoon, the school’s legendary humor magazine, there is a huge Harvard presence in the “30 Rock’’ writers’ room.

“And their entire existence was making fun of the fact that they went to Harvard,’’ said Powell. He thinks that the writers are playing out their neuroses through the Toofer character; they want to be proud that they went to Harvard but know that it is not allowed. Each time Toofer mentions Harvard on the show, it is merely a set-up for someone to trample on it. It is, Powell said, the comedic tradition of apologizing for yourself.

And although Harvard people approach Powell all the time to tell him how much they love the character, it is always in the same way. “They say, ‘You remind me of a guy I know,’ ” he said. “They never say, ‘You remind me of me.’ ’’

Billy Baker can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

Correction: Due to a reporting error in a story in Monday's Globe about the difficulty Harvard graduates have with saying they went to Harvard, Nancy Redd's class year was incorrect. She graduated in 2003.

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