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Remarks from Morning Prayers 2023

Harvard Memorial Church Morning Prayers
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My Brief Career in Reality Television

Ever since I took office, people have been curious about who I am. Not in the usual ways—not in the ways a CV could communicate the arcs and contours of an academic career—not in the ways a biographical sketch could fill in the blanks. People are curious about who I am. How did I get here? What matters to me?

Because you are here this morning, I want to tell you something that almost no one knows.

I want to tell you about my brief career in reality television.

Now, when this happened, it wasn’t yet called reality television. It was called Romper Room. The premise, if you are unfamiliar with the program, was simple: preschool-aged children singing songs, playing games, and learning lessons with the help of a cheerful and compassionate teacher. There was also a bumblebee, Mr. Do-Bee, who modeled good manners. For forty-one years—yes, forty-one years!—this program enchanted young learners across the United States.

It was August 1975. I had just turned five and was excited to soon be heading to kindergarten. My family lived in Savannah, Georgia, at the time, and my mother—somehow—had landed me a spot on Romper Room. We arrived at the local television station, and I took my place with the other children.

Things got off to a good start. I could sing songs; I could play games; I could learn lessons. And my manners were impeccable—for a five-year-old, of course.

Then the puppet show began.

At first, I was enthralled, sitting still as a story unfolded before me, but my curiosity soon begged questions. How were these things moving? What was happening back there—beyond the curtains? What wasn’t I seeing? I began to wriggle in my seat. I left my seat and went backstage. My cheerful and compassionate teacher intervened. I was returned to my seat—I was returned to my seat again—and again.

Even unscripted local television has its limits. With good humor—and, truly, no hard feelings—I was ejected from Romper Room.

I had forgotten much of this episode until earlier this year. My mother, Claudette Gay, passed away just before Commencement. Soon after, I found myself sorting through things that she had saved over the course of her life. I found tucked among her papers my Romper Room diploma, affirming that I was, and I quote, “at all times, ‘a Good Do Bee.’”

**hold up the diploma**

This object is one of my mother’s belongings. This object is also evidence of my mother’s belonging. I think of her—an immigrant woman, only eight years into her life in the United States, a young mother—navigating an unfamiliar landscape for the sake of an opportunity for her daughter. I think of the time and effort she must have devoted to getting me on that show in the first place. And I think of her pride and her joy in her achievement—and in my achievement.

This is my first “first day of school” without my mother. I share her with you to celebrate her—and so that you may come to know me better.

So, who am I? Obviously—and you can read it right here—I am a good do bee. And I hope to be a great colleague to all and a great leader for all.

How did I get here? Propelled by belief in the power of education, the power of curiosity and ideas, the power of attentive and industrious work—instilled in me by my mother and father, nurtured in me by my teachers and my mentors.

When I helped at Move-In Day last week, I loved seeing families who had never set foot on our campus, who had never really been here—or anywhere like here—before. I loved seeing parents and siblings sporting Harvard t-shirts and hats, brimming with pride and joy at their newfound association with this place and all that it means in the world. I thought about those belongings—about their belonging—and it reminded me of how much our work and this place matter for more lives than we can count.

Harvard is not just for her students, not just for the people who are fortunate enough to be considered members of our community. Our reach, our embrace, our obligation is wider than that—and can and should be wider still.

Each of us has a hand in deepening the connection between our mission and our society. That connection is what matters to me. And every year brings fresh opportunity to renew that commitment.

Thank you for joining me today. Welcome to the “first day of school.” Welcome to a new semester.