Not Exactly Miss Manners

Abim Thomas

If you don't know her personally, you've probably at least heard Abim Thomas '96 burp. Her burps are round, deep, hysterical explosions of noise. They can be heard from far away and they can happen at any time--in the dining hall, in the Science Center, at a party, on the way to class. You might have heard her rip one of these things through the air, but you may not necessarily have guessed where it emanated from. It came from the smiling, six-foot-tall woman standing next to her nervously laughing friends.

Thomas says she's been burping--loudly and fiercely, not quietly and subtly as Miss Manners suggests--since she was eight, when her older brother taught her how. She has continued to do it for the shock value. "I find it really fascinating that people are so surprised [when I burp,] mostly because I'm a girl," Thomas says. "I get comments like, 'women and girls don't do that.'" She loves to sit in a group of men and release a huge burp. People usually turn around and blame the men. It really amuses her. Not that she doesn't want people to know she did it. "It's a cool way to get attention," she says, adding sarcastically, "Like I don't have other ways."

Thomas does manage to get attention, whether she's campaigning for Class Marshall, helping run the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Alliance (BGLSA), acting in "The Real Class of '96," or tearing up the rugby field. Sure, she's loud. But she's also generous, outrageous and funny. She's a great dancer, and she can make a mean mixed drink--in more ways than one. So many people know and like her, it's sometimes hard to have a meal with her, walk down the street with her--do anything with her--without pausing while at least three or four people stop to say hi.

Thomas was born in Florida, but she grew up in Nigeria (ages 4-8), Senegal (ages 8-14), and Maryland (age 14 to the present day). Her mother, who is second generation Danish and "more American than anyone I know," lives in Maryland, while her Nigerian father lives in Uganda. She has three siblings, to whom she is very close. Tobin is her 16-year-old younger brother ("He's a hottie," said one of Thomas's friends). Jessica, her 22-year-old older sister, graduated from Stanford last year and now lives in Maryland. Justin, her 24-year-old brother, is in jail (But not for teaching her how to burp. "Typically delinquency," Thomas says. "Car theft, drug dealing, the usual. No killings...that I know of." And then she laughs.)

When Thomas was looking at colleges, Harvard was not her natural choice. It was the lesser of several evils. After visiting several campuses and getting food poisoning at one, treated like garbage at another, and just having bad experiences at the rest, Harvard Pre-Frosh Weekend turned out to be the least offensive. "I hated everywhere else I went," Thomas says. "I never thought in a million years that I would come [to Harvard]." At first, Thomas was snobbish about attending Harvard, but an experience at Filene's Basement one morning during that weekend changed her mind. Another prefrosh, annoyed at Thomas's rants about Harvard's elitism, laid into her. "It's Harvard, it's Harvard! How could you turn down Harvard? What makes you think you're so special that you're too good for this school?" Thomas thought about it and realized that maybe she wasn't all that. Maybe Harvard was a good place for her after all. But she qualifies her decision. "It was the best of the worst. I chose the one I hated the least."

Four years after that fateful Filene's trip, Thomas says her experience at Harvard has had its ups and downs. She's been as active as any member of her class. Recruited for track and field (she specialized in the high jump), Thomas despised it and instead rowed for awhile with Radcliffe crew. An ankle injury led her to the water polo team instead, where she played all four years. She's also been a valuable member of the Radcliffe rugby team.

Despite all these athletic commitments, Thomas has found time for a wide variety of extracurriculars. Considering that she's straight, Thomas's involvement in the BGLSA, in the time not long ago when the S stood for student and not straight, was a little out of the ordinary. It just seemed to happen. Freshman year, Thomas lived downstairs from William A. Blankenship '96, and "he was always complaining that he didn't know any other gay freshmen," she says. "I made it my personal mission to go out and seek gay people." On this mission, she met people like Royce Lin '96, the future chair of the BGLSA, and Joshua L. Oppenheimer '96-'97, the future political rabble rouser famous for his campaigns against AALARM, Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield '53, and other symbols of right wing conservatism. The next year, Thomas started accompanying Bill to the meetings, because he wanted someone to share the long walk from the Quad. When the vice chair position became vacant, Ty Sheppard nominated Thomas, an energetic supporter of The Cause, to fill it. She was vice chair for a year and a half, and then, she says with a laugh, "I tried to resign, and got stuck with social chair." Thomas had a great time working with the BGLSA, but she qualifies her role: "I don't know if coming to meetings every week and sitting on the laps of gay boys did anything." It's hard to get things done at Harvard, she complains. "People are so apathetic."

Some people, perhaps, but not Thomas. At the suggestion of eventual First Class Marshall Peter Cahn, Thomas decided to run for Class Marshall. "He said, 'It'll be fun!' or something Peterish like that," Thomas explains. "I just did it on a whim," she says, although she ended up Third Marshall. She has taken the role seriously, however, Cahn says. When Thomas and Peter were looking for help finding a Class Day speaker, Thomas would do almost anything to get support. "She knows how to put on the right short skirt to get something done," Cahn says. "'Is this one short enough? Is this one short enough?' she'd ask me." They eventually were able to bring Tom Brokaw to the event.

Thomas has also been a great cheerleader. It was her idea to send flowers to everyone who helped them in their speaker search. She also led the effort to thank the House representatives for all of their help with the enormous amount of Class Committee work. With her direction, the Marshals stuffed bags full of candy and other goodies to give to each representative.

It is this attention to friendship and the feelings of others that many say is Thomas' greatest trait. People love her almost as much as they love to talk about her. Cahn tells stories of Thomas bringing food to sick friends and being the friend on whom he can always count. She was the most consistent letter writer to Cahn when he was in Honduras last summer. She sent him an article she ripped out of an in-flight magazine that was about a woman who worked in Honduras--it had nothing to do with anything else Cahn was doing--and sent it to him, saying it reminded her of him.

Thomas loves to make her friends happy, whether it's by cracking a joke or making them a great drink. Over Spring Break this year, Thomas, who doesn't drink alcohol, was the official frozen drink maker for a group of friends who vacationed together in Puerto Rico. At first she made the typical concoction of strawberries, ice and vodka, but as the night wore on, the ingredients became more and more bizarre: peanut butter, milk, a strange vegetable paella she found in the refrigerator and then finally a leftover chicken dish with olives, tomatoes and cheese. How did she get her friends to drink this stuff? They were drunk and believed what she said: "I told them, 'It's my secret sauce, secret recipe, private blend.' They drank it. And it smelled atrocious." And she laughs again.

It's stories like these (and others that wouldn't be appropriate to print) that have made Thomas famous at Harvard. She seems surprised that she has become someone that people talk about, but she also admits it's true. "Half the people think I'm a lesbian, half the people think I'm Ty Sheppard's girlfriend, and the other half think I'm really the Beaver Girl." In "The Real Class of '96" (a parody of the short-lived Fox drama "The Class Of '96," which she refers to as "the best idea that Paul D. Cabana '96 ever had"), Thomas played a number of roles, including a cause-obsessed Save the Beaver Girl. But fame has its price, as any celebrity will tell you. Thomas complains that because she has such a high profile, "not very many people know me really well."

Like being such a well-known personality, for all its obvious positive aspects, going to Harvard has its drawbacks. That Thomas knows well. She's had her fair share of terrible academic experiences ("Especially in the sciences...I actually had a TF who didn't speak any English at all.") She says the best part of her Harvard experience has definitely been the people she has met, the amazing, brilliant, interesting people that "you can talk to until four or five in the morning about anything."

Thomas is not sure what she is will do after graduation. "There are options," she says. She may return to Uganda, where she spent last summer as a member of the French "Doctors Without Borders" program

She may also stay in Cambridge (or go back to Maryland) and find a job that has nothing to do with medicine in order to see if she really wants to be a doctor, something for which she has been preparing for the past four years.

Whatever she decides to do, it is clear Abim Thomas will make her presence known.CrimsonGabriel B. Eber

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