Into the Lion's Mouth

My HBS classmate at the Kennedy School with the spiffy name card seemed certain I could survive the B-School. But first, I’d fish him for information.

I was coy: “Any…ad-vice?”
I thought he would give me something subtle, something that would allow me to negotiate the complex corridors of the B-School’s culture.

“Don’t wear leaves in your hair,” he opined.
He was referring to a couple days in the fall when I walked to KSG and festooned my head with the fleeting, falling colors-I had pulled my hair high on my head and had arrayed leaves about my topknot. I started with two leaves in my hair and thought I’d stop there, but like a kid collecting seashells on the shore, I kept gathering more. I arrived at Harvard with a crimson and maize crown. I thought it was lovely.

My informant thought it would be, uh, less than prudent to walk into an HBS classroom looking like a maple tree.
“That won’t play well there, huh?” I responded.
He gave me a look that suggested a crown of leaves at HBS would play about as well as a busload of four-year-olds with kazoos and drums.
My search through the HBS catalog was brief. An Ed School classmate had heard of a class entitled Power and Influence that might dovetail with our mutual interest in leadership. Having worked at the B-School, she knew her way about its campus and bureaucracy. She told me where to go and what to say. She showed me Spangler, its fireplaces, paneled walls and leather chairs. Most impressive were its bathrooms. You could park a Jeep in them.

I gawked. I didn’t need an “I Love HBS” t-shirt and a couple of cameras to look like a tourist. My eyes told all. An optometrist could have made diagnostic use of my dilated pupils.

As an act of mercy, Kris, my Ed School, cross-registering classmate, yanked me back to the marble hard reality of HBS. She advised me to clean up if I expected to be heard.

A student recruiting for the HBS Show delivered a related message. I’d stopped at his table to watch the video of last year’s show. I was wearing my favored, frayed, and torn jeans.

“Cross-registrants are allowed to participate in the show too,” he kindly offered.
“How do you know I’m a cross-registrant?” I asked.
He smiled.
If the lion that was the B-School was going to spare me, I’d have to change and start with my clothes. I might look less appetizing if I looked like I belonged.
So, it was, in many ways, my very first day of school all over again. As a child starting at a Catholic School, Mama scrubbed my nails, pressed my jumper and braided my hair so tight my brain hummed. This time, Mama wasn’t there to help and it wouldn’t be nuns that would mete approval. It would be the Masters of the Universe with their savoir faire sense of fashion.
My farm jeans with their saggy, ragged knees were out. A jumper might work when you’re six and your fashion critic wears a habit, but to a lion, you’ll look like an hors-d’oeuvre. And the only jumper I had was red, wide and corduroy-the perfect platform for one of those lacquered “I LOVE TEACHING” pins. All my schoolmarm clothes with their playground and lunchroom stains would be given a vacation. I would have to go shopping.
Although I was hoping to take Power and Influence, I shopped a couple other classes. In one, the guest was the regional CEO of Goodwill.
After her presentation, I approached her, posed a question and then volunteered: “I bought all these clothes at Goodwill.”

We both laughed and she noted: “I didn’t expect to find one of our customers in this crowd.”
To be concluded with Decoding the Culture

April 17, 2001
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