Letter from Cambridge ... Rihanna does not sing ... Just a short talk to celebrate her award as Harvard's Humanitarian of the Year ... Rock star professors are pale in comparison ... Hannah Ryan reports, with a bad dose of hero worship
IT was no ordinary Tuesday at Harvard. Rumours of a motorcade roving around campus were swirling, and from mid-morning a line of students started to grow outside the university's imposing Sanders Theatre.
I was one of them, staking out my spot at 10:30. Of course, as Harvard students are wont to do, I brought some reading with me - a fellow student's draft paper on the regulation of work in the gig economy. But concentrating was difficult. I'd done a rough head count of the people ahead of me and I was pretty sure that I'd be able to get my hands on the tickets we were all hoping to score.
The occasion was a ceremony to celebrate Harvard's Humanitarian of the Year award, whose previous recipients included Aung San Suu Kyi, Ban-Ki Moon and Malala Yousafzai. This year, we were gathering to honour Robyn Fenty - better known as Rihanna.
Rihanna. You know who she is. She sings Umbrella and S&M and Bitch Better Have My Money. Among the Harvard set, her most popular song is probably Work (it goes "work, work, work, work, work"), because that's what they like to do.
She brought a bejewelled flask to the Grammys and drank from it through the awards show. She has a complicated on-off thing with rapper/actor/meme Drake. And, though she doesn't trumpet this fact, she does a bunch of humanitarian work, including building an oncology and nuclear medicine centre in her home country of Barbados.
My arithmetic was right. Shortly after midday, the line started to move, and I snaffled two tickets.
Today is a good day, because I get to honour Rihanna at school pic.twitter.com/llR1mhATE4— Hannah Ryan (@HannahD15) February 28, 2017
As things played out, it was more like worshipping than honouring. That afternoon, accompanied by a law student from New Zealand, whose passion is the equitable law of tracing, I looked around the wooden pews of Sanders to find that my fellow students had transformed from scholars into wild fans. And the same thing had happened to me: involuntarily, I was standing, cheering and whooping as Rihanna walked onto the stage, compulsively snapping grainy photo after grainy photo on my phone.
All of my worries - the soundness of the methodology underlying my thesis, my career, the incoherence of First Amendment doctrine - dissipated instantly. I had spent years of legal education accumulating calm and reason; now it was gone.
There Rihanna was, mere metres from me. I was in her presence. If she turned her head slightly to the right and looked up the back rows, maybe she could notice me?
The Harvard College Dean spoke first. "I am just like - woah," he said at one point, as starstruck as everyone else. When he finished talking and walked back to his seat on stage, Rihanna kissed him on the cheek to say thank you. He looked at the crowd elatedly for a second, as if to say "did you guys see that?"
All gravitas was out the stained glass windows. The crowd cheered after every sentence, no matter who uttered it. Three students addressed the crowd. "Thank you, Rihanna, for inspiring us to work work work work work in the service of others," the first student said, after making an earnest speech about public health. The next student told us that she "empowers kids from Barbados to Malawi to shine bright like a diamond".
"I was worried about what to say today," the third student said. "Then I realised she doesn't care what I think." We all cheered again.
Now it was Rihanna's turn. Wearing thigh-high boots in grey tweed and a matching dress straight off the New York Fashion Week runway, she stepped up to the lectern.
"So I made it to Harvard," she began, stroking her sleek pony tail.
"I never thought I'd be able to say that in my life, but it feels good."
It was hard to breathe.
"We're all human and we all just want a chance. A chance at life, a chance at education, and a chance at a future really ...
"People make it seem way too hard, man. You don't have to be rich to be a humanitarian. You don't gotta be famous. You don't even have to be college-educated."
She paused at that point. "I wish I was," she added.
"It's never too late!" a voice called out from the audience.
"It's true," she said, laughing. "I might come back." We cheered again.
It was funny. For those few seconds, the joke was that those of us in the audience had something Rihanna might want, rather than the other way around. Of course, it wasn't true. At least for me, one of the reasons I love Rihanna is that she has exactly what I lack. Not just fame, fortune and perfect skin (I saw it in real life, and it's true), but a couldn't-care-less attitude. In modern parlance, she has chill – a trait that our college education does not encourage.
A young child dressed in a suit found himself on stage. "Rihanna, we thank you for your compassion, your philanthropy, and your wonderful music," he said unsteadily into a microphone bigger than his head. "On behalf of the children of Cambridge, we present you these flowers." She hugged him. We screamed.
There's a concept at Harvard of the "rock star professor". They're the ones whose courses you have to preference first and even then you might find yourself 100th on a waitlist. You crave their attention and approval. You spout their opinions back to them in class. You pay extra attention when you pass their portrait in the corridors of the law school.
When a real star comes to campus, the rock star professor feels like a false idol. So much misplaced admiration. Who cares about constitutional law when pop music exists? Just laying eyes on Rihanna gave me a euphoria that I've never felt in the classroom; an elation that I have never felt while reading a case. And she didn't even sing.
When the ceremony was over, I ran around the back of the theatre, hoping for one glimpse of her up close, or perhaps a selfie. Had she already left? A group of police officers walked past. "Excuse me," I stopped one, "Is she still here?"
"She's gone," he said.
So that was it. I walked away, grinning, and went back home to read for the next day's classes.
Hannah Ryan is an Australian law graduate studying at Harvard Law School