How I Didn't Spend My Summer Vacation

It could be happening even as you're reading this. You're waiting in yet another endless line for study cards/sectioning/to get into that class you probably won't take anyway, and you spot a friend you haven't seen since your English final last May.

Hey, (fill in the blank), how are ya'? Where are you living? I'm in blank House--we got a triple for five people, a walk-through. What classes you taking? Oh, really? I took it last year. A flaming gut, no shit. So, where did you go this summer to get that great tan? You say you roller-skated along the banks of the Nile to raise money for the homeless and then spent a month touring beaches in Spain, France and Italy? Sounds really great.

What? Oh, I didn't do much. I went home to Puquana, North Dakota, and, uh, well, gotta go--good to see you, let's do lunch sometime, okay?

While many Harvard students windsurfed the waves, criss-crossed exotic continents, or partied hearty throughout the summer months, others whiled away those precious sun-filled afternoons answering phones in office buildings or memorizing reruns of the Brady Bunch. And some had the gall to do nothing, absolutely nothing, zippo for that good ol' resume.

Altogether, if you didn't climb Mt. Everest or save a country, you might be better off avoiding the topic entirely. Perhaps that's why many students who had couch potato internships or jobs that turned out to be as exciting as recopying the yellow pages are reluctant to discuss their experiences. "I don't know how I would feel about the entire world knowing I had a boring summer," says Herman.*

Job descriptions that sounded fascinating in March and April weren't always true to life, students discovered. "Had I known, I wouldn't have done it," says Jane of her job as a research assistant on the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project. The Quincy House junior adds that she should have guessed, though, because her employer sounded so eager to hire her.

Jane lived at home in Chicago and spent her summer evaluating math textbooks used in high schools. "I was in charge of analyzing data collected from 1000 ninth and tenth graders on their opinions of math books," she says. It's not even exciting to read about, let alone live.

"Oh, but you haven't gotten to the really boring part yet," Jane adds. After several weeks of analyzing, she was promoted to sharpening pencils--3500 Number Twos, to be exact. (Did you ever wonder who sharpened all those pencils for your standardized tests? Now you know.) Jane says the pencils were the most boring part of the summer, at least until she realized "you can sharpen pencils and read Lady Chatterley's Lover at the same time...After that I listened to the Grateful Dead because my boss went on vacation."

And although Jane says she would never, never, never do it again, she did gain some valuable experience. She left Chicago with two 50-page reports--all about how much ninth and tenth graders love their math books--and the ability to complete, with help from the other bored research assistant, the Chicago Tribune crossword puzzle in 10 minutes.

"It should have been fantastic," says Alexander, a junior, who worked as a lighting and sound designer for a summer stock theater in Vermont. But once he started working, the job description changed. He says he was hired to be assistant musical director, but then the management decided not to do a musical. Bad news for the music concentrator.

Alexander couldn't even look forward to a fat paycheck to allay the boredom--six days a week, 18 hours a day. "I was paid atrociously--about $1.70 an hour," he says. To make matters worse, he adds, "All the lighting cable I worked with was asbestos."

While some people say that answering phones all day long is the one of the most boring summer jobs you can have, Herman of New York says he found an even more uninteresting job. The summer after his freshman year, he sat behind a desk at the New York City Department of Transportation waiting for the phone to ring--which it did once an hour--then transferred the calls. The rest of the summer "I just sat at home and didn't do much," he says." But none of this was nearly as boring, says Herman, as his freshman year.

And what can be more boring than answering a phone that rings only once an hour (besides Herman's freshman year)? How about answering a phone that rings only two or three times a day? That happened to Debbie, a freshman who thought it would be interesting to work in a real estate office. "I thought I'd learn more about real estate," she says.

Instead, she spent her days at a desk waiting for the phone calls that rarely came and reading anything she could get her hands on. "I just sat there and read. It wasn't that bad. It was just boring," she says. But after several weeks of life in the rat race, Debbie quit to become a beach bum.

Others did not find the outdoor life as enticing. Andy, a sophomore from the Midwest, says he worked in his hometown cutting grass, landscaping and doing gardening--in 95 degree heat. "It was really boring. I dreaded getting up in the morning." After all, he adds, "grass is grass."

Not only that, but Andy's city hired "criminals and lunatics" to work with him, so for him, it wasn't the heat, it wasn't the humidity, but the "working with the criminals that I didn't like."

Henrietta, another sophomore, says she worked in a research lab injecting mice and pipetting "stuff into each plate of assay material." And then she injected a few more mice and pipetted some more stuff.

And again. And again.

That was the interesting part. In the very beginning, "I didn't really have anything to do," she says, so she "flipped through medical journals" just to look busy. Her roommate was busy and that wasn't much better. Henrietta's roommate worked for a law firm going through files and throwing away duplicate documents, and--for a little variety--xeroxed hundreds of pages.

But some students seek out boredom, for a change of pace from the often frenetic Harvard lifestyle. Freshman Kenny says he was "pleasantly bored" during six weeks of vegetating through the same routine every day--playing tennis, reading, practicing violin, watching television and sleeping. Kenny began his summer with a vacation in Korea, and when he came home, he "realized the security of the consistency of the schedule" in Ohio. "I did the same things every day. It was actually quite relaxing," he says.

He considered getting a headstart on studying for placement exams or classes, but changed his mind, he says. "I knew Harvard was going to be so dynamic, I needed some stillness for a little bit before I ventured off." And stillness, he--and others who chose to spend a quiet summer--got.

Would they do it again?

Catch them later when they wake up.

* The names in this story have been changed to protect the bored.