The sun’s early rays hit the Charles River with a piercing glare as the songbirds chirped outside Eliot’s back gate. I had been pacing in my room, back and forth since 4 AM, pondering a dream that I could not, for the life of me, remember. At the gentle nudging of dawn (for dawn never really “cracks” on Eliot House), I made my way through the gate to the boathouse, and sat next to the wooden fox on the dock. I absently caressed its peeled-paint fur with one hand as I surveyed the shenanigans of other houses in what they questionably called “IM Crew practice.” I knew as they flailed on the banks of Weld Boathouse, Eliot’s boat was far down the river, charting its path as a true leader. None could dampen my spirits on this fine morning, not the boathouse personnel, nor my impending classes, nor the competition other houses might present. After basking in the satisfaction of my Eliothood for some time, I prepared myself to rise and go back to the dining hall for some top-notch breakfast burrito fare. And yet as I rose, something caught the corner of my eye. There, in the water next to the in-place scull floating in the dock, was a reflection. It was a face, and its lips were moving. I approached carefully, oar in hand for protection. I peered closer. The face was not mine. It was not a reflection of the clouds above me. No, the face was…well, wait. It couldn’t be. As I peered closer, the lips moved again.
“Vidya, this is my speech, this is my turf! The river, the apparitions, the glorious descriptions that mean nothing and everything….why are you giving this speech?”
It was Lino, of course. I started and almost fell, shocked at seeing him but also what he was saying. “Isn’t that the point of the Charles Eliot dinner speech?” I asked. “To describe how you see apparitions of Charles Eliot and how it changes you? To finish with a rendition of the Eliot House song that would put William Hung to shame?” I stammered.
Lino replied: “Vidya, Vidya. That’s how I have connected with Eliot. But what about you? What about your class? Show us the spirits your class sees in the early morning around Eliot House, not the one I see.”
It was true. I had never seen Charles Eliot around the dorm or on the river, or beside me on the treadmill in the deep recesses of the gym. When I woke up early for crew practice I only saw light dancing off Weeks footbridge, never the traces of a ghost trailing next to us. In my mind’s eye Charles Eliot was just the disproportionate head in a portrait rather sternly staring at us from near the servery door.
What then, is the spirit I see in Eliot?
The Eliot spirit is not easily defined. It is the feeling of peace when you walk through the breezeway and the door swings open to greet you; it is the swelling of the heart you feel when the Eliot Town Crier yells out “Floreat Domus de Eliot!” and you respond “Domus!”; it is the emotion of entering through the back gate after a tiring run and seeing the green tower loom as you walk through the archway.
Of course I have been to other houses—even Cabot, once—and as a senior had ample time to judge them. They may claim better brain breaks or fewer critters. They may think it worth their time to sit on a high chair and yell at people in their dining hall. They might think that by stealing our rugs they might claim a dignity they never had. But even if we didn’t win the cup and plate; even if we didn’t have our banners and our rugs and our glorious courtyard; even if we didn’t, dare I say it, have money to put on the Fete—we would still be the same majestic house. Eliot is not Eliot because of its historic bricks or its remarkable accolades, plentiful though these may be. When we say “E-L-I-O-T, you just won the lottery” we induct the incoming class into a culture of camaraderie that we deliberately pass down. Eliot is compassion, friendship, and loyalty.
I had this impression of Eliot before I even knew I would attend Harvard. My older brother Vikram was Eliot class of 2006. When I was in high school and he’d call with stories about college, he would always talk about Eliot, not Harvard. I was impressed by the amazing and supportive community he had built just within this one house. His GZ rooming group made shirts and still use their google group 5 years later. I wanted to come to Harvard because of this affectionate spirit I saw when I visited him in Eliot, but I didn’t know at the time that this spirit was more particular to Eliot than in other houses. There’s something in the way we treat each other that bonds us much more than we may know or appreciate. When my brother’s friend Paul Gilligan, class of 2005, passed away the summer after graduation, the Eliot community came together immediately to remember a close friend. My brother has come back with his Eliot classmates for the Paul Gilligan memorial run every year he’s been around Boston. In Eliot, we commemorate students like Paul Gilligan and tutors like Henry Mathiessen because we recognize the value of remembering the Eliot spirit of the past and preserving it for the future. We want the honor and friendship of Eliot to continue, more than the fancy events or the hot breakfasts or the trophies. Our best trophies are our own Eliotites.
The apparitions I see when I wake up in the morning and see the light of dawn hit the gold weathervane on our green tower are not the ghosts of Charles Eliot or his fellows. What I see are all the upperclassmen, tutors, and staff of years past and present, leaving their mark for us. Even on the bleakest winter day, I can look into the courtyard and remember it alive with Third Rail, our matching shirts, blue and red balloons, a tutor rap, and the smell of the bbq. I can look at the dining hall and remember the seniors sitting at round tables last year, reminiscing so long I wondered how it was possible. Now I know it is. I can look at the grille and remember being pretty much beat by Gail at foosball, or at the servery and remember the pleasant surprise of seeing Doug needing late night brain break just like us. I can look at the patio and remember the smoothies and ridiculousness of crash E’s, or the miniature desserts from a Fete that made my blockmates and I feel like princesses. Even when I look at Harvard Yard now, I think of this year’s housing day, and the sight of 100 Eliotites storming into battle.
One of my favorite pieces of “lore,” if you will, about Eliot House, is the Fete Day Miracle of 2008. The miracle was originally narrated by former Hoco co-chair Alejandro (whose face still is on the Eliot website). In this true story, a baby squirrel in Eliot courtyard is attempting to escape the claws of the evil hawk from Kirkland courtyard, and a crowd of (increasingly indignant) Eliot students is watching. Here is an excerpt from his account in May 2008, sent over the Eliot-list: “Kirkland Hawk, seeing this moment of weakness, swoops down just in front of us, perching on top of the dumpster, batting his ugly wings and frantically searching for his fuzzy prey. Emboldened by the shrieks of the crowd and compassion for our house’s tiniest residents, a brave few run towards the feathered fiend, swatting at it with the aforementioned twigs. Feeling the Eliot heat, Kirkland hawk retreats to an even further, higher branch, atop our courtyard’s highest tree. At this point we have better armed ourselves with a paddle and two nerf guns, Louis embarking on a Doma run, as we prepare to set up a 24 hr security shift. The hawk also took a dump on the branch, however this is irrelevant and only mildly entertaining. Not 15 minutes later, a large squirrel, who we presume to be their leader, climbs up to the tree, and plants himself 5 feet away from the perched hawk. He begins to speak to him in some kind of animal tongue, barking squirrel noises for 2 minutes, invoking some kind of treaty we couldn’t discern. Obligingly, the hawk turns around and swoops up and over C entryway, out of our Domus’s strong walls forevermore. Let us rejoice tonight in blissful merriment, squirrel and student alike, on this the most glorious of occasions!”
The Fete Day Miracle is miraculous indeed, but actually small acts of kindness and solidarity happen in Eliot every day. That is why, no matter where we are from, when we come through Eliot’s breezeway we have the feeling of coming home. It is my hope that incoming classes of Eliotites are inculcated with this spirit of Eliot brotherhood and sisterhood more than anything else. And I hope that even 5, 10, 20 years after the senior class graduates, Sue, Francisco and Shams will open these doors for us, the wonderful dining staff will still be here and ask about our day, the 8 will be out on the water, Doug will have successfully marketed “Jell-o elephants,” or “Jellophants,” toddlers as cute and friendly as Lucy will still reign the dining hall, and each of us will be able to walk to the end of the courtyard, turn around at the archway, look up at our green tower, and feel at home.
Floreat Domus de Eliot!