There’s a funny shame–a discomfort with presumed privilege–in attending Harvard, that institution at the pinnacle of American higher education. So this is a very old joke: A liberal and civic-minded alumnus will speak only of having attended college in Cambridge, near Boston, and reveals even that information only when pressed.
I have enough comedian friends (professional and amateur) that I get to regularly enact a post-modern variation. I answer simply, straightforwardly, careful not to shy from the embarrasment of my own privilege. And they respond very quickly, “Where is that?” I like this joke a lot.
Privilege at Harvard is a complicated thing. All graduates benefit from the brand. To complete the basic requirements of a Harvard degree, even barely and with great difficulty, can still give one entry into a number of well-regarded professional schools. And, should a young man or woman tire, by age 22, of academic pursuits, the same piece of paper can be presented to employers as virtual proof-of-competence. The school helps by giving just about everyone who makes it through ‘honors’ (90% of students, last I checked.) But not all students begin Harvard with the same advantages.
I wrote this song inspired by a classmate of mine. Out of respect for his privacy I will not identify him by name. I should clarify, I did not know him when we were students. I do not know him now. But I did not need to know him to be inspired by his struggle.
For he arrived at Harvard after a very troubled upbringing. Raised amidst repressive religious orthodoxy, with a combative father who presided over his bickering clan’s contentious family business, he was only a mediocre high school student. Nor did he shine, academically, as an undergraduate. His studies were strained by all the time he committed to working (still the family business called!) those four years.
Upon graduating, when most young men would begin a journey of self-exploration, to pursue their own unbounded dreams, he faced a sobering reality. His disreputable father having been sent away to federal prison, he stoically took on leadership of the family business himself.
Never did his path become easy! Through his twenties he made numerous naive business blunders, as well as a not-brief-enough foray in the waning world of print journalism.
But, never once, did he admit defeat.
And today, through all this adversity, he has arrived at a position of influence and power few could have foreseen. He is poised now, to affect the lives of so many Americans, and people around the world, in awesome, truly consequential and potentially irreversible ways.
This song goes out to him.
It’s called “Anybody Can Grow Up to Buy the USA”
Performed and Produced by me (Alec Spiegelman)
Written by Alec Spiegelman & Christopher McDonald
Christopher and I began writing this song at his gorgeous grand piano, in his home, in West Philadelphia. It could be this is the first recording of any music composed at that piano since it arrived at its present address. It is on the open-plan first floor between the sitting area (right where you walk in) and the kitchen, where there used to be a dining-room table.
Illustration by Taylor Ashton