Surviving Camp Harvard

A junior high teacher of mine who went to Harvard as an undergrad told me that Freshman Week was probably the best time he ever had at college. “You get the whole campus to yourselves,” he told me two years ago; “you have free run of the place.” When the upperclassmen show up, you suddenly become a lowly first-year.

Mr. Zurcher was right, I suppose. Fifteen-odd years after he graduated, the strange symmetry is still intact: Harvard College is entirely yours for your very first week here (Freshman Week), and then not again until your very last week (Commencement Week). Admittedly, the Jewish calendar dealt the Class of 2005 a bit of a bad hand, as the timing of Rosh Hashanah forced administrators to let all students move in at the same time as the first-years—but effectively the campus belongs to the frosh until Sept. 11, when returning students have to be on campus to register.

But Camp Harvard was not all it was cracked up to be. True, it was pretty sweet to be on campus with no responsibilities save for mandatory proctor group meetings and comparison-shopping for inflatable furniture. But there was a lot of stuff for which Mr. Zurcher simply didn’t prepare me.

In particular, I had absolutely no idea how many damn people I had never seen before would come up to me and introduce themselves. At ice cream bashes and cheesy mixers, in Annenberg and Greenough Hall—for some unimaginable reason, everyone wanted to know what my name was, where I was from, what dorm I was in, what I was thinking about studying, my shoe size, if I knew the one person they had ever met from East Nowheres, N.J., and so on. Even more bizarrely, I found myself extending my hand to other people and asking them these same asinine questions.

Freshman Week, in my experience, was just Prefrosh Weekend writ large: an interminable orgy of smiles and introductions and small talk. (For some, it’s just a plain old orgy, period, but that’s beside the point.) The experience of stepping outside my body and watching myself schmooze was both confusing (weren’t Harvard students supposed to be socially inept?) and a bit scary (aren’t we too young to be good at this B.S.?), but the main worry was a more practical one: how am I going to remember all of these people?

To the first-years who are reading this column, I wish I could offer you some advice on how to avoid the temptation to engage in 200 meaningless three-minute conversations over the course of the week. Since I can’t think of any, though, I would like to give you some pointers on how to cope with the inevitable small talk.

Now, some of you may have brilliant memories and are not at all worried that somebody you met at the A Cappella Jam will call out your name on the lunch line and you’ll be totally clueless and embarrassed. If you fall into this category, I hate you; stop reading. Otherwise, consider the following ideas:

One strategy is to only talk to people who are from your home state. This is particulary good if you are from a state like California, Massachusetts, or New York, because there are plenty of people at Harvard from these states and therefore lots of folks for you to meet. Just introduce yourself to someone, ask where they’re from, and if they’re not from your home state, politely turn your back.