Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Oh, say...

A year ago, the school (and the city) was just getting off lockdown after the manhunt for the marathon bombing suspect(s). And looking backward, there's a few things I remember quite clearly:

  • the spreadsheet of students offering couch space, spare beds, and sleeping bags to 'stranded' students unsure if it was safe to be crossing campus
  • the Dining Services workers who crossed a city on lockdown (by bike, as I recall) to come in to work, and the students who volunteered to work the dining hall with them
  • the pre-frosh who came to Visitas Weekend despite its cancellation (including mine!), and the hosts who did everything they could to make their stay worth its while (in the fall, the school would announce record yield numbers...)
  • the sudden, temporary freedom from work -- afterward, a friend would recall "I've never felt so free as that day we were trapped inside!" I'm not sure what this says about Harvard.
    But there's one thing in particular about what whole bizarre half-week that I'm unlikely to forget, probably ever:

The day that the freshman dining hall, Annenberg, was reopened, someone proposed an idea which caught on pretty much immediately -- at 6pm, in Annenberg, we'd gather as a community to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. It was one of those things, I think, that a lot of us needed, and it just seemed like the right thing to do on that Tuesday night.

There's a scene in Casablanca where the a cafe of Frechmen rise together in La Marseillaise to drown out a handful of rowdy Germans singing Die Wacht am Rhein.

It's a tearjerking moment, and the first (and second, and third) time that I saw it, I was intensely jealous of the French for having a national anthem that could turn music into an act of resistance. If you didn't watch the video above, do it. And even if you don't know French, you don't have a heart if you don't feel the power in: Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! Marchons! Marchons! Our anthem just doesn't have the same kick to it...

At dinner, 6pm came and went. Ten minutes later, my friends were asking "is it happening?" and "should we just leave?" Apparently, no one wanted to be the first one to stand up and start it, which was kind of sad, since we'd been looking forward to it. But then, on the other end of the hall, someone climbed on top of a table, and began, shouted, tunelessly: Oh, say can you see...

About half of us, I think, knew what was going on. We were waiting for it, and by the end of the line, we'd pushed out our chairs and risen to our feet. And once we'd joined in, the other half caught on pretty quickly.

...what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming...

Have you ever really listened to the words? From an early age, I'd learned to say them, and I'd felt moved by the melody when it was broadcast over Olympic medal ceremonies. But have you ever just---

Oh, say, can you see (by the dawn's early light) what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming, whose broad stripes and bright stars (through the perilous night) over the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there!

Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?

I think I lost it at "gave proof through the night". We'd been scared, we'd been confused, and we'd only just been told that everything would be okay. We were coming out of that darkness, but still... Can you still see what we hailed at last twilight? Does that banner yet wave?

Yes, we sang. Yes, after the bombs burst in the crowds, the gunshots and sirens and police reports and websites set up to take stock of survivors and blood donors and couches opened up to classmates and friends working the cafeteria line and the freshmen gathering to sing in Annenberg Hall -- they gave proof that our city, our school, and our friends were still there.

It wasn't a nationalist moment. For me, at least, it wasn't even a patriotic moment. It was a moment I shared with my classmates, and to some extent, with my city. (It was about that time that Boston became 'my' city. And so now I'm a Red Sox fan.) It was the most beautiful moment of my freshman year, and I'll always feel lucky that I was there to be a part of it.

There's no footage of us on YouTube. (Trust me, I've checked.) But I found the video of a similar event at the first Bruins (hockey) game after the bombing, with a stadium-full of spectators joining together by their voices:

It gives you some idea of how it went. But the night in Annenberg was ours, and that made all the difference.

(Attentive readers will remember that I've previously written (in three parts) about building community in unconventional ways through song.)


As we left, my friend (the Canadian one) said to me, "You know, I'd never heard your national anthem before. It's really lovely." And I thought, but didn't say, "Yeah, me neither. It really is, though."

Today, I'm no longer jealous of the French for having La Marseillaise. I know what it's like to make things out of the music of several hundred voices, and I know that it's not about the song, it's about the singing.