Our Journey to Harvard (Literally and Figuratively)
At the same time, God also testified by signs and wonders, various miracles, and distributions of gifts from the Holy Spirit according to his will. – Hebrews 2:4
We have never experienced God working in the way that he has in our lives this year. It’s been so dramatic that this verse just keeps coming to my mind. The signs and wonders have been overwhelming.
I don’t know what he ultimately has planned, but I wanted to document things so far while we could still remember them.
Our son is an outstanding student and an outstanding person. He has a perfect academic record since starting school, and his test scores are good enough to qualify him for anywhere he wanted to go. Despite that, Ivy League was never on our radar — heck, nothing outside the Southeast was really on our radar.
Especially these days, college is about what you do with it as much as where you go (if not more so). The homeschool program we’ve been a part of for the last five years has taught him to love learning, so we knew he’d excel wherever he ended up. We didn’t feel any pressure to send him anywhere in particular, and he wanted to be close to home as much as we wanted him to be close to home, so we assumed we’d end up somewhere within a few hours drive. Plus, he doesn’t know what he wants to do, so there’s no chance an Ivy or equivalent would even let him in anyway (or so I thought).
Then we got the letter.
Shortly after PSAT scores were released, we started to average at least a couple of letters from colleges every day. On this particular day, he got letters from Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. That’s pretty fun; I’m not going to lie.
The Harvard letter stood out — literally and figuratively. For one, it’s Harvard. But more than that, they sent it in a full-size envelope so that the letter wasn’t folded. We had all these regular-size business-sized envelopes… and Harvard.
The letter begins:
Have you considered Harvard? Your strong grades and standardized test scores indicate that Harvard and other selective universities may be a good fit for you.
OK, you got me.
Later in the letter, they note that it costs less than a state school for 90% of American families. Now you’ve really got me!
So I did; I took a few hours to really consider Harvard. It’s definitely impressive. I ultimately decided it wasn’t a good fit, though, because they didn’t offer a finance major or anything closely related except for economics. (Finance is what he’s strongly leaning to, and the only thing we’ve found so far that strongly piques his interest.) Oh, well. Maybe for grad school.
March 2017, God Starts Intervening
1 – The Article
A few days after ruling out Harvard, I just “happened” to come across an interesting article about hedge fund manager Bill Ackman. The article just “happened” to mention that he did not only his grad work but also his undergrad at Harvard. “Wait,” I thought, “this finance guy did his undergrad at Harvard? Did I draw the wrong conclusion?”
2 – His Major
Well not only did he do his undergrad at Harvard, he majored in History, which Harrison has always loved — and which we’ve always discouraged him majoring in (because what kind of job can you get with a History degree, right?). Hmmm… Maybe I should take another look.
3- Harvard’s Mission
So I did. And then I saw something I had not seen the first time around. On their Mission, Vision, and History page they write:
The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.
Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation. Through a diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities, intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created. From this we hope that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world. [Emphasis mine.]
So, completely contrary to what I originally believed about colleges like Harvard, they actually believe that students should decide what they want to do once they get to college.
One of the many huge things I’ve learned from Jennie is that our job as parents isn’t to mold our kids into something (however good our intentions), it is to shepherd them into realizing the full potential of who God created them to be. Harrison is crazy smart with a great heart. He’s also very grounded in and serious about his faith. As much as we would hate having him so far away (a feeling he shares 100%), Harvard appeared to be a place where he could realize his potential to a degree that few other places could offer, and it seemed like an eerily perfect fit for him. (This page in particular seemed like it was almost written about him specifically.)
It was clear that Harvard was an option we should explore in-depth, so I reached out to a good friend to see if he had any good Harvard contacts that could help us learn more.
4 – The Email
Without question, God loves making me laugh. As I’m talking back and forth with my friend, I just “happened” to get an email from one of the hotel rewards clubs we belong to. The subject line? “Great Spring Deals in Boston!”
As you can imagine, the pressure of being solely responsible for your child’s education can be extreme — and it’s particularly stressful with the oldest. If you screw up, there’s always time to fix things for the younger ones maybe, but the oldest one only gets one chance.
The closer Harrison got to high school, the more Jennie felt this. She is an elementary school teacher. She worried constantly that she wouldn’t be able to help Harrison live up to his potential now that he was getting further and further beyond what she had been educated to do. How could she possibly do for him what teachers in a “real” school could do?
We had no doubt that God wanted us to keep homeschooling, though, and as Harrison started high school, God told Jennie that what he wanted her to focus on was this: Is he with me? — that education was crucial, but far and away her most important responsibility was leading Harrison to continually grow closer to the Lord. Is he with me?
There’s a pretty common perception that the farther you travel from the Southeast, the more Godless it gets. While there’s some truth to that (based on things like church attendance), it’s too easy a jump to get from there to thinking of the Northeast as completely Godless. That’s obviously not true, but we did want to explore how Harvard would impact Harrison spiritually.
Thankfully, my friend connected us with a local Harvard grad who not only has been very successful, but is also an ardent advocate for Harvard and as strong a Christian guy as I’ve ever met. He took time out of his completely packed schedule to have lunch with us and answer all the questions we had. We left the lunch feeling even more strongly that Harvard could be a good fit for him, so it was time to visit in person.
God had shown us enough to get us on a plane to Boston, but we had no clue how much he still had planned.
5 – The Napkins
Jennie will carry much of the story from here on out. (You can read more in her post.)
I had been praying that God would help me to know with certainty where Harrison should go to school. I prayed mostly that God would put him where he could grow closer to God and where he could be used by God. I also prayed that he would help Harrison to know and be excited about where he was going. I longed to see him get excited and show some emotion about the school he would attend. I mostly prayed that God would give me a peace about everything. It was truly such a weight on my shoulders that I desperately wanted to remove, but simply couldn’t figure out how. I wanted so badly to give it to God and release the worry.
As we boarded the plane, I was flooded with emotion. I could not believe that we were going to visit Harvard with our son. Harvard? Really? How did I raise/teach a child who had a legitimate chance at getting into Harvard? He certainly did not get the intelligence gene from me. My heart was full of gratitude for having this chance and for having the means to take our family on a vacation like this. We have been so incredibly blessed and it really hit me in that airplane seat. I thanked God and prayed that he would continue to use our family to bring him glory. I continued to pray that God would show us where Harrison could best do that. I still held onto my thought that Harvard might not be the best place for a Christian young man to grow in his faith. But God, in his infinite wisdom and abundant grace, began to show me, in his perfect timing, that he indeed had Harrison in the palm of his hand and that no matter where Harrison landed, he would take care of him. Little by little, God began to tug away the fear I was so tightly hanging onto.
God speaks to people in different ways. For me, God almost always gives me little or not so little signs when I pray for them. I believe it is because knows he my insecurities and realizes I need the affirmation of a sign. Well, God gave me one sign after another on this trip that he was indeed in control and that he was a loving God that cared for my son. The first of those signs came on the plane when the polite stewardess placed our beverage napkins onto our tray tables. My napkin said, “The world is changed by those out in it.” Jonathan’s napkin said, “No one changed the world by staying put.” Ok, Lord, I hear you, but my mama heart is not convinced. I am going to need a little more.
Knowing what was to come, he had to have laughed at her asking for a little more.
6 – Emotion
More from Jennie:
As we were walking around Boston the first day I asked Harrison what he thought of it. He said he liked the city, but that he felt it was a one and done type of place. He would enjoy seeing it, but probably wouldn’t come back any time soon. In my human reasoning, I thought, okay, so Harvard and MIT are going to be off the list. However, God in his faithfulness gave me more. … I prayed before heading out to Cambridge Thursday morning, “God, help me to know if he will be ok here. Help me to know if this is the place for him. Help him to know for himself if he should go here.” I was a bundle of nerves as we drove there. I prayed for peace. He answered.
When we stepped out of the car, I was thinking this is pretty, but not quite what I expected. Then we opened the door of Sanders Theater. I think I literally gasped. It is so amazingly beautiful. The stained glass, the woodwork, the Latin all took my breath away. I heard Harrison say,” Wow!” He didn’t balk at all about having his picture made and the smile on his face in those pictures is a true smile. The students at the check-in table were so nice and genuinely friendly. They were not the serious, solemn, arrogant students I had pictured in my mind. They directed us to the theater and we sat down in the pew and looked up and saw “Welcome to Harvard” on the big screen. I almost cried at that moment. What followed next was a video, put to the song “Anything Could Happen.” The video featured students from Harvard and their personal stories. The first person featured was wearing a Harvard Basketball t-shirt. (Basketball is Harrison’s sport.) He was from Tucker, Georgia. Ok, Lord, you have my attention. It helped that they showed him playing basketball with friends, playing video games with friends and wearing a ghostbusters t-shirt in addition to showing his classes and research. The next story featured was also a basketball player. I liked that he said, “Harvard let him explore everything.” Since Harrison is really not certain of what he wants to do, this made me feel so much better. After the video, we heard from two different students as well as an admissions officer. They were fantastic. Harrison was engaged and smiling and interested the entire time. I loved everything the admissions officer had to say. He painted a lovely picture of Harvard, but without any trace of arrogance or elitism. We then toured the campus. Our tour guide was very personable. The campus was beautiful. Harrison looked at me during the tour and with a big smile said, “I really like it here!” I had prayed for emotion and now I had it. After our tour we visited the Harvard book store. At other campuses, I had asked if he wanted a shirt and he replied that it seemed weird to get a shirt if he wasn’t sure if he was going there. However, he was thrilled to get a shirt from Harvard. I was amazed at how much he liked this school.
Harrison is not a very emotional guy. He’s a deep thinker, but that doesn’t present as emotion very often — and definitely had not shown up in our prior visits to Samford and UGA, despite the fact that he liked them both. When Jennie told me later what he had said, I knew it was a big deal.
7 – That Nichole Nordeman
Saturday night as we were getting ready for bed, Jennie was browsing through Instagram and exclaimed, “OK, that Nichole Nordeman has made me mad.” Oh, no. Nichole is one of her favorites. What happened??
Turns out, she had posted this:
It was powerful all on its own, but looking back we can see now that God was setting up for the grand finale.
8, 9, 10, 11 – Park Street Church
We got into Boston Wednesday afternoon and saw a ton of sights before bed that night. And Thursday and Friday we saw so many more that I began to wonder whether we had planned too long a trip. What were we going to do with two more whole days Saturday and Sunday? More than once I pondered changing our flight home from Sunday night to Saturday. (Hotels in Boston are not cheap; leaving a day early would make a huge difference.) God wouldn’t let me, though, and Friday night I found out why.
I woke up at one point that night and God said, “You should go to church on Sunday.” Well, duh. If one of the main reasons we came is to see what life would be like for him here, shouldn’t we see what church would be like?
So the next morning I started looking for churches near Harvard and God led me to Park Street Church. I spent a long time researching them and felt confident that’s where he wanted us to go.
Man, did he.
We showed up at 10:30, well before service started or before anyone much was even in the sanctuary. It probably seats 600 to 800, and we had our pick of seats — plus time to settle down and take everything in.
The first thing I thought to check was the hymnals. What kind of songs do they sing? Do I know any of them?
The previous week in Sunday School, we had talked about one of my favorite hymns. I had noticed that it wasn’t in our own church’s hymnals, so I figured that might be a fun one to look for. As I picked up the hymnal and flipped to the index, Mary Elizabeth whispered loudly to me from farther down the pew, “Mom says we’re singing one of your favorite hymns.” Sure enough, I looked in the order of service and there it was in black and white: “Come Thou Fount.” Not only was it in the hymnal, God had picked it out for our visit.
The service started with a large Methodist youth choir from Brentwood, TN, singing an amazing Latin piece. I was just blown away. I love choral music, and especially when it’s sung in a large, soaring church. (I even have a Pandora station just for choral music.) To be sitting three rows away from them, just swept up in the middle of the singing, was one of the most personal, loving expressions of love God has ever given me. He didn’t have to do that, I didn’t need him to do it, but those are the truly amazing gifts — when he does just because he can. It was overwhelming.
Later in the service, they sang again — this time for Jennie:
The second song they performed really caught my attention. It was not the song they had planned to do. It was not the one listed in the bulletin, but it was the one God wanted me to hear. The words said, “Can the hand of God, can the voice of love find me even here?” At this point, I was just trying to hold back tears.
I mean, come on.
Then the sermon:
His sermon was on the prodigal son. Ok, I can relax a little. He spoke not only of the prodigal son, but also the other son. He said both had heart issues. It was a great message. Then he said this line in reference to the other son, “We can do lots of things for God, but what matters most is not what we do for God, it is whether or not we are with God. Are you with him?” These were the words God had spoken to me when Harrison was entering high school. “Is he with me?“
12 – Mark & Bev
Mark and Bev deserve their own section. There weren’t 10 other people in the sanctuary when we got there, yet God had Mark and Bev come sit right behind us shortly after we sat down. Right behind us — in a church where they could have sat a million other places. We soon found out why.
I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and was sweetly welcomed by a lady named Bev. She and her husband Mark asked if we were visiting Boston and then asked if we were visiting colleges. She looked at me and said, “It is both exciting and terrifying all at the same time.” My thoughts exactly. She shared how her three boys had gone off to college. She said they all left home and only one came back. Sensing my anxiety, she placed her hands on mine and said, “Only one came back home, but I see them all often. They visit a lot.” This woman understood. Her husband then looked at me and said that he would pray for my son and for us as we were making these decisions. He laughed and said he would do his best to remember. His wife then leaned in and whispered, “He never forgets. If he said he will pray for your son, he will.” I wanted to cry. These people we just met were already willing to pray for my son.
They talked for a few minutes before the service, then several more minutes afterward. I couldn’t hear them, but I could tell Jennie was enjoying it.
Before we left, Jennie stopped by the ladies’ room. When she came back to meet us, she had this look on her face like something unsettling (in a good way) had just happened. I asked her about it, and she said it was nothing. I could tell it was because it was taking everything she had to hold it together.
Before we left, I needed to visit the ladies’ room. Bev ended up in line right next to me. She proceeded to tell me about the wonderful college ministry they had through campus ministries and that the chaplain of Harvard actually attends church there. Before she left the restroom, she told me to tell Harrison to look them up if he came to school in Boston. She said, “Tell your son, that if he comes to Harvard to look us up and know that if he does, his lunch on Sunday afternoons will be taken care of.”
I don’t have the words to adequately describe to you the power of that moment. Except for a span of a few months, the churches that God had us a part of from 2007 through 2015 were all younger people, and we talked often about how much we missed getting to be loved by those who are older and wiser, who have such a great perspective on everything. And here we have an older woman not only loving on Jennie, but telling her that she will personally take good care of her baby? Mary Elizabeth, astutely, described it best: “The only way God could have spoken to Mom more clearly would be to actually speak out loud.”
He could not have given her a more intimate, loving sign.
13 – The Basket in the Water
God had worked, with an intensity we had never seen, to show clearly that Harrison would be well taken care of at Harvard. He then wrapped it up by having this post cross Jennie’s Facebook several times over the course of the weekend, for us to bookmark and finally read once things were complete:
But this past spring, as I sat in church after Easter yet still meditating on those days of old, a thought entered my mind: It’s over now. Jesus had been reunited with the Father. The disciples were on their own. The Bible gives us an account of what the disciples were thinking and doing after Jesus ascended into heaven, but what was the Lord thinking? Was he watching over them, wondering, “Was it enough? Did they get it? Did I teach them everything they needed to know to do this on their own?” As these thoughts continued to run through my mind, I couldn’t help but make the connection to the thoughts we often feel as parents embarking on the next phase of our child’s life. “Did I teach him enough? Did we spend enough time together? Was she listening?”
The realization I had that day that Jesus truly and fully does know what we feel as parents was overwhelming.
There comes a time — many times, actually — in the lives of our children where we have to put the basket in the water. We have to let go and trust the plan of the Father. The world is a scary place — a place where we fear our children could drown. But we must remember that we have to let go so that God can draw them from the waters for His great purpose. He has called us to be their parents, but they were His first.
I think Jennie best summarizes things at this point for us:
We have been home several days now and as reflect on our trip, I am just so thankful for the way that God answers prayer. He has not only given me peace and helped me to release my fears, but he has shown me how much he loves and cares for us. While I still am not convinced that Harrison will end up at Harvard (after all their acceptance rate is only 5.2%) I am certain that no matter where Harrison ends up, he will be taken care of. God has a perfect plan for his life. He is in control, not me, and he loves Harrison with a perfect love that I cannot even begin to comprehend. God showed me in visiting Harvard that he will take care of Harrison and that I don’t need to be afraid. God can find him even there.