A freshman in considerable distress came to see me a couple of years ago. She had taken my undergraduate course in the fall semester. Now it was April, and she was ready to quit Harvard College. At first she spoke of the general difficulties she had experienced as a particular young woman—someone who grew up in a factory town, whose father worked on an assembly line, having never finished high school, and whose mother hadn’t either. I tried hard to explain to her that things would change, that she would feel more comfortable with a strange and occasionally forbidding place over time.

I also tried to address the matter of class—a young person’s understandable anxieties as she tried to comprehend and get along, day after day, in a world of wealth and power. “I know,” she told me at one point, “that I’m not the first person who’s poor and who’s managed to get through this school, but I don’t seem to have what it takes.”

Eventually I heard this: “I’ve had some terrible times here. The worst of them is being a cleaning lady for some of these rich guys. They are unbelievably arrogant, and I hate this way of earning money.” As part of her “scholarship package,” she scrubbed the bathrooms of other students. I could certainly agree with her; and had long advocated that all students be required to do such work—lest, yet again, the prerogatives of money assert themselves baldly. “What it comes to,” she pointed out to me, “is that the poor here sweep up after the rich. And they keep talking about a ‘community’ here, and we’re all supposedly part of it.”

Still, I wasn’t convinced that the general situation we had been discussing quite accounted for the mix of agitation and sadness and bitterness to which I felt her giving expression. Finally, ...

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