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The Year of the Freshman: an annual social event thrown for 1200 selected students, with lifelong repercussions

By Gregg J. Kilday

In Some Respects, A Rebuttal:

Well, I hate to contradict old Nate right off the bat like this, but as usual, he hasn't got things quite right. A lot has changed here at Harvard since that momentous autumn when Mr. Pusey, doing his damnest to sound like a second-rate Fitzgerald narrator, first suffered unnoticed through a freshman bull session. And although the Freshman Yard, with its predominantly WASP administration, still smacks of a snobbishly genteel Harvard, the incoming freshman can rest assured that his first struggle with the Union's compost-like tapioca will not be interrupted by quick repartee at Katherine Mansfield's expense. In fact, clever, fragmented sentences as well as comfortably postprandial discussions are both pretty rare nowadays. Grunts and arguments are more likely to predominate. The Freshman Union-with its walnut panelling; lifeless, lifesize portraits; and generally thwarted attempts to come off as a mushrooming men's club-can no longer hide the fact that it is just a big, dark, cavernous cafeteria.

No, the kind of talk-at least from fellow students-that the incoming freshman can expect is a lot less intimidating than Nathan would have it. I came to Harvard in the autumn of 1967 (alas, also "expectant" and "receptive"), but as I remember it my first contact with another Harvard freshman took place in the third-floor showers of Hollis Hall. (Now, don't leer; that kind of stuff you swore off in prep school, right?) Anyway, I was simply waiting for a recalcitrant shower head to let go with some hot water when I met Jed. We quickly introduced ourselves-more in the way of initiating a conversation, rather than ascertaining who each other was, the generally meaningless kind of introduction that is a staple of the freshman's first few days.

Jed was from Now York and quickly told me how crummy the New York school system was. I am from Boston, so I quickly told Jed how crummy the Boston school system is. And from that we got into a discussion about how crummy education in general is. I mentioned Jonathon Kozol (whose Death at an Early Age was just appearing in the Atlantic ) and Jed mentioned Peter Schragg and both of us felt vaguely impressed with the other, although, most of all, we were each gratified with ourselves. (Since all this time the shower was still struggling to warm itself, I guess Nathan would quite rightly have considered ours a "pre-deluvian" confrontation.)

In ALL fairness to Nathan, I do remember thinking to myself as I finally stepped into the shower that if I was so casually beginning my first day at Harvard with such a penetrating discussion, there was no telling what depths of profundity I'd sink to by midafternoon. Unfortunately, the whole incident may have too many, inherently symbolic ramifications to be entirely credible. So, as the steaming water pounded against his slim, young body, he knew he had begun his initiation into the fellowship of educated men.


(Excuse me, I see that the engaging flow, such as it is, of this narrative- cum -expose has been interrupted. The "shee-it" is the voice of my freshman roommate, First you must understand that "freshman roommate" is itself a perjorative term-a curious phenomenon given the fact that, not only did most of us have one, most of us were one. Mine happened to be from Mississippi. ("No, white, " I would explain, with the appropriate tone of annoyance to my outraged relatives.) What was a nice boy from Boston doing with a roommate like that? The fault, I'll admit, was my own. When it came time for me to fill out the administration's virtually irrelevant roommate request form, I was half through a second tortured reading of The Sound and the Fury. No, I told my parents, I don't care what race he belongs to, or what religion he practices, or whether or not he plays a musical instrument. In fact, I think I'd even like a Southerner! Harvard responded with an irony far less than poetic. For Pat turned out to be no Quentin Compson.

(Still, the thing about freshmen roommates is that you don't really hate yours until you're a sophomore and by then it's too late. During freshman year, said roommate is indispensable. At best, he will share his mother's chocolate chip cookies with you (although by the time they arrive from Milwaukee they're sure to be broken). At worst, he will be petulantly difficult whenever you want to sleep a girl in overnight: Say, uh, would you mind very much if Jan and I used the room tonight? Didn't the two of you use it last weekend? Yeah, but I thought... Don't you think I might like to use it once in a while? Yeah, but... You know, my father pays the same amount of board as yours O-K. I know, but I thought you didn't have a date tonight. Well, you're right, I don't; are you going to make something out of that too? And so it goes. In any case, you can be sure that your freshman roommate will call your entire existence into question, and by the end of your freshman year-but definitely not before-you will be well rid of him. Gasp. Close parenthesis.)

Anyway, the point that the whole, by-now-soggy, shower episode was leading to before it was interrupted: as an incoming freshman, you can expect to be impressed with Harvard for about two and a half weeks. Long before that time, you will have stopped comparing college boards (the other guy's are always embarrassingly higher), and by the end of your first month, you will begin to wonder how so many stupid people ever managed to get into the place. By that time, you're playing one of the freshman's more amusing games, one called "He got in Because..." Because of Geographical Distribution. Because His Father Went Here, etc., etc.

THE ADDED irony, of course, is that being dumb does not preclude being on the Dean's List. (Not that anyone has ever actually seen the Dean's List. When we do see deans making lists, they are usually putting down the names of people who are occupying their offices.) As a freshman, you soon learn that the level of academic competence demanded by Harvard is ridiculously low. Most of your work is graded by graduate students, who (rightly so) have little confidence in their ability to perceive intelligence. All you have to do is look as if you're trying and your paper-no matter how illiterate-gets a B-with a grader's little crabby comment that reads: "Some good ideas. Try for better organization next time. See me if you think this unfair." Sure, fella.

In such a school, academics take up a minimal amount of time. Students attend lectures only when they don't have anything better to do (such as sleeping). To fill up the rest of their time, Harvard has invented rituals. The first ritual you'll meet is freshmen orientation week. It is something like summer camp when it rains. Boring. You spend most of your freshmen week sitting around waiting to go to introductory meetings where you sit around some more and listen to a lot of people-deans, proctors, glee club directors, and members of Crimson Key-talk. The purpose of all these talks is to dispel many of the misconceptions you might have about Harvard. And regardless of what they say, the speakers do do that most effectively.

One of the unsung delights of freshmen week is a wonderful little non-event known as tea with the Pusses. In one valiant effort, Nate and the missus open up their Quincy Street home and you, as a new member of the class of 73, get to queue up and shake their hand before retiring to the punch bowl where a bunch of Episcopal chaplains try to trap you into conversation. It's about the only occasion on which you're apt to find most of your classmates wearing dark, two-piece suits. Personally, I don't remember what the Puse said to me. (As little as possible, I would imagine.) But I do recall Mrs. Pusey, as she looked at my light blue, summer sports coat with its white pin stripes, saying, "My." Pause. "Isn't that a colorful jacket?" Yes, I replied quite sincerely, I figured I'd try to get by with wearing it once more before the weather turned too cold. Mrs. Pusey quickly passed me off to some sub-dean, though not before smiling a smile which must have been her only defense that day, a smile that said, "Dear Nathan, these freshmen of yours, they might be amusing if they just weren't so hopelessly appalling." Oh, well. Go anyway. Except for Meet the Press, it's about the only time you'll ever get to hear Pusey speak.

Harvard's other rituals are far less memorable. Like getting drunk on sherry for the first time-it's difficult, but it can be done. Or PT-some stalwart son of Harvard thinks you should have thirty hours of physical training per semester. Luckily it's not long before you learn how to trick the attendance man at the IAB into thinking you've been swimming or before you discover how to sneak out through the back door of the soccer courts.

THEN, there is the ever-popular all-nighter. Ah yes, one's first all-nighter. It's something like masturbating for the first time: you tell

yourself it's nasty and you won't make it a habit, but basically you're pretty relieved that you had the strength to pull it off. For the freshman, all-nighters are necessitated by weekly expos papers (i. e. glorified compositions required by Harvard's compulsory writing course). No one ever begins them until the night before they're due, and no one ever completes them until a few minutes before class. It's the academic's version of Beat the Clock. Unfortunately for masochists, the competition falls off sharply by second semester. For by then everyone has learned that at Harvard no one really expects you ever to turn in assignments on time. Normally, the whole University operates about three weeks behind schedule.

But then we tend to blame Harvard too much for our difficulties. For honesty's sake, a few other rituals that are hardly of Harvard's doing must be mentioned. Around New England, sex is, as they say, pursued with a passion. Every weekend, Dartmouth boys, rubbers firmly in hand, hitch out of Hanover, while Yalies go off to visit their pill-swilling neighbors. Meanwhile, Wellesley girls, in tweed skirts and cloth coats, arrive in Harvard Square by the busload. Only Harvard men manage to sit relatively still. Of course, freshmen do tend to panic. For them, Radcliffe is out-at least until second semester, by which time most upperclassmen have warily dropped their all-too-serious Cliffies. Still, for most, Radcliffe must exist only as an ideal, a symbol of the Maidenhead Impermeable that one pursues through the head, not the heart.

For the most part, freshmen tend to concentrate on the junior college girls that Boston seems to soak up like a thirsty, sanitary napkin. Many of these girls, needless to say, are not known for being intellectually topheavy. But, if one's just looking for a little something to help him keep in practice, the i. c. girl is always there on a Saturday night.

My favorite story is told by a friend who was once invited to dinner at one of the junior colleges that blight Commonwealth Ave. As his date led him into a large, tastefully decorated dining room, she asked. "Don't you think this is lovely?" "Yes, very nice," he answered. "Yes," she agreed, then added wistfully, "too bad we're too dumb here to appreciate it."

There-this essay (from the French, essai, to try, test) has officially degenerated into a morass of egocentric affectations and Harvardian putdowns. It's the thing you've got to watch out for here. For I haven't told you about how Harvard tears you apart, because that is the part that is difficult to tell. (See John Updike's short story "The Christian Roommates" in his collection The Music School or, on a once-removed level read John Berth's The End of the Road. ) Despite, or maybe because of, our spurious elitism, we are an insecure bunch. Harvard is too small-in all senses of the word-for an individual to cope with. By the middle of freshmen year, you begin to tire of going around with the guys in your dorm, really just an artificial grouping of individuals anyway. You begin attempting to make it on your own.

IT IS then that you discover how few are the opportunities Harvard offers. While academically Harvard encourages a healthy dilletantism, extra-curricularly it delights in a frightening professionalism. The Loeb, the CRIMSON, even SDS, demand a commitment that few are willing to give.

So most Harvard freshmen are left with very little to do. There are always drugs, of course. As long as you're not a flagrant pusher. Harvard will keep you safe from the nares. (In fact, I'm sure many an administrator welcomed the advent of grass as one way to defuse revolutions.) Consequently, grass is plentiful, and cheap, mostly sold by Cliffies who don't need the money because their fathers live in Westchester and have all the money they need. But even drugs are becoming passe. They used to be the major social determinant of freshman year. There were those in the dorm who turned on and those who didn't and neither group really understood the other's existence. By now, that's all social history. Even trying to discover whether or not your proctor smokes is frivolous, since of course he does. If you're interested, you might want to keep track of who he's on friendly enough grounds to smoke with, but by then it's all become pretty much of a bore.

Spring at Harvard always brought one remedy for the malaise that creeps into the end of freshmen year. (And even preppies aren't exempt. If anything, their malaise begins even earlier.) Spring used to provide an opportunity for the Annual Freshmen Riots. Last year, the Riots were pre-empted by the occupation of University Hall, and suddenly romanticism had found its proper battleground.

For you, as a freshman, are actually to enter two Harvards: one is Pusey's Harvard (i. e., the Administration, the Corporation, some Faculty members and one or two classics majors) and the other is our Harvard (i. e., most students, younger members of the Faculty). Without our even asking, most of the members of the class of '73 will naturally join our Harvard-every year, the freshmen arrive more radical, less naive, more and more they have already tried dope, and like politics, they have gone beyond it. We just seem to sit back and marvel at such precosity, while remembering how painfully we reached the same kinds of consciousness. A few of you will try to defend Pusey's Harvard, and for you I feel kind of guilty. Because the rest of us will be trying to pull it out from under you, and it can get pretty frustrating to live for four years on the defensive.

IN EITHER case, though, you'd best expect a good bit of violence. Violence, along with a cataclysmic sense of emergency, has become pretty fashionable here of late. It makes life at Harvard alternately exciting, exhausting, and intolerable. Our Harvard-in its prose and its "politics" -practices a kind of blunt, immediate violence. Over dinner we argue about movies and rock, late at night we meet over beer or dope to argue about each other, and, once our ideas have reached a state of partial articulation, we confront and demand and we curse. O-K, so maybe we're sometimes wrong, but at least it's an open, honest violence. Pusey's Harvard-in the balanced sentences of its introductory pamphlets as well as the hidden workings of its corporate machination-practices a more insidious violence, one camouflaged by manners and traditions. But, it's there, man, it's there to recognize and hate.

Freshmen year isn't easy, but it is, like accepting one of the two Harvards, inevitable. And so, after each holiday, you come back to your dorm. First, the radical from the mid-West says right after Christmas vacation, boy, I can't go back there again. Then after Easter recess, a lot more begin to realize that Cambridge is their real milieu. A few, perhaps, try a final summer at home, but it rarely works. They too flee back to Cambridge in panic. And so, one day, you suddenly hear yourself saying. "I've got to get home." And home means good old Harvard College. Cambridge, Massachusetts. And that's it.

Your freshmen year rapidly becomes nothing more than a cliche. Yet, you'll think it the best year you spent at Harvard. Which is only a measure of what you can expect during the other three.

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