Harvard – My lifelong dream come true.

My dream of attending Harvard University and the road I journeyed to
get there began in the summer of 1971, selling newspapers on a corner in
Harvard Square. I was 11 years old and the youngest “hawker” on the
block. How did someone like me, a gal with a street-wise, edgy attitude
and a lower middle class status, ever make it to Harvard University and
earn a degree? In fact, based on my inner city upbringing and the life
I’d lived, the likelihood that someone like me would ever make it to
Harvard was slim to none. I still haven’t quite figured out how the heck I
even made it through high school. Honestly, it was on a wing and a
prayer (me winging it and my mother praying).

All that summer I took the subway into Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA,
from my hometown in Quincy at 4:30 am, where I sold the Boston Phoenix
and the Real Paper on a corner across the street from the black,
wrought-iron gate of Harvard University. I was very excited about having
a job and about earning money. I bought my papers in the morning, each
one for .25 cents and turned around and sold them on my corner for .50
cents a piece. I was 11 years old and I thought I was so rich!  I remembered that I dared not venture to sell on any
other corner because the other hawkers were protective of their “turf.”
No, I stayed in my spot, at the entrance of the Harvard Square subway
escalator, where I could watch the multitudes of people walk in and out
of the gate across the street.

“Why do all those people go in and out of there?” I asked.

I was told, “Oh, that’s Harvard University little girl. Those people
are going to college. Don’t worry about that, you’ll never see inside
that gate; not while you’re selling newspapers on this corner, anyway.”

All that summer I watched and dreamed that one day I could walk across
the street and walk into Harvard Yard as if I really belonged there.
From my street corner, with my newspaper bundle close beside me, I
imagined I was actually across the street, instead of right where I was:
on the corner making change for the newspapers I sold.

As a teenager I continued to work while I attended public school. I
always tried to help my family out, whether I was selling newspapers or
waitressing. I am the oldest daughter of seven children and my parents
divorced when I was 16. I met my future husband when I was 14, and he was
16. We married when I was 18 years old. He was an immigrant from Sicily
and his parents did not speak English so it was necessary for us to
live near them.  For the first five years of our marriage we lived in
their home in a renovated 1-bedroom attic apartment. My mother also
continued to need my help raising my siblings. I also gave birth to my
first two children in those first three years. I thought about college
often, and I prayed that one day I would be able to attend, but I felt
that it just wasn’t the right time.

When my second child was two years old I thought that maybe it was
time to attend college, and I enrolled in night school. I was 23 years
old. Several years passed, and I also had another two children. In 1985
my husband and his father (who did not speak English) started a paving
business. I taught myself all the necessary skills to run a company and
the main office for the next 13 years was in my dining room. I still
dreamed of going to college, but with a husband and a business, four
children, and a huge extended family to care for, it just never seemed
to be the right time. My dream, ever elusive, pushed further and further
out of my reach. I tried to take classes when I could (10 in 14 years)
yet, I still hoped that one day the time would be right.

In 1994, while volunteering in my children’s elementary school, I had a
wonderful idea! I created a non-profit literacy company called, The
Story Train. I’d travel to elementary schools, brainstorm stories with
classrooms of students, take a field trip with them to the local cable
studio and showcase them and their stories on a program called, The
Story Train. The first show was taped in 1995. I traveled to schools
throughout Massachusetts for the next eight years. My program was
nominated twice for the best educational program for children on local
access television.

By 1996, I relinquished my role in the family paving business to focus
on The Story Train full-time. I began once again to take college
classes. Then finally, in 1997, I decided that my degree was no longer
something I could put on hold. Throughout my life, it was never, ever
“the right time” so even with four teenagers at home and my own business
to run, I enrolled in college full time. I took 30 classes in two
years, and received my B.A. in Humanities from Stonehill College with a
3.7 GPA in June 1999. My dream of obtaining a college degree had finally
become a reality!

However, even with my B.A., I still could not forget my dream from
1971, as an 11 year old girl selling newspapers on a corner across from
Harvard University. My dream of one day walking through that
wrought-iron gate “as if I really belonged there” had never faded. I’d
worked hard my entire life and at 39 years old I decided to throw doubts
to the wind. I thought, “What the heck. I have nothing to lose. It’s
worth a shot, probably my only shot.” Equipped with my B.A. and letters
of recommendations from my professors at Stonehill College, I applied to
Harvard University’s master’s program for teachers. Then, I waited.

Four months later, April 1999, an envelope arrived in the mail. I
looked at the envelope, my hands shaking. I did not have the courage to
open the envelope. I decided to give the honors to my 14 year old son,
John and 12 year old son, Carmen. They ran in the living room while I
waited nervously in the kitchen. The clock ticked. Not a peep from the
living room. I called out to my boys, “Well, what does it say?” Still,
not a word. (I now realize that they were trying to read the letter.)
Finally, an explosion of excitement from the living room! They ran into
the kitchen and could not stop jumping up and down. “Yes!” They both

I will never forget the day I walked through Harvard’s gate, but
unlike in my dream from 1971, I really did belong there. I started my
teacher program (not night school this time either) in September 1999,
took 13 classes that year, and received my Master’s degree in Education
in June 2000. I’d just turned 40 years old. After the graduation
ceremony I walked over to my “corner,” the one where I’d sold my
newspapers on 29 years before. It was the most surreal moment of my
life. As I stood there across from Harvard’s gate once again, I could
feel the presence of my 11 year old self still sitting there on her
newspapers. In my mind, I smiled at her. I looked across the street with
the same anticipation I’d felt back then. Except this time the
anticipation faded quickly because this time (and it finally was the
right time), I was holding my degree in my hand. I could see in my mind
my 11 year old self was smiling, too.

I go back to Harvard Square now and then, just to visit for the day. I
take the subway into Boston and without fail, every time I pass my
“corner” I get goose bumps. Just the thought that I used to sell
newspapers “right there” fills me with a sense of pride and
accomplishment at my life. I will never forget where I came from or the
work it took to get where I am and anytime I need a reminder I simply
take the train into Harvard Square and stand on my corner.    

Sharen Wendy Robertson owns the copyright to all posts on this Blog.

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