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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Back to the bathroom mirror

By Joanne L. Kenen

Beth Johnston and her roommate were still arguing about whether to take the bunkbed apart and sacrifice the limited floor space in their freshman dorm when Jeff Robinson knocked at the door. Eight years had lapsed since Jeff's family left the Wisconsin town Beth grew up in and she probably wouldn't have remembered him if she hadn't once seen him throw a water balloon at their Sunday school principal. Their families still exchanged Christmas cards and Jeff was dutifully obeying maternal commandment to "check up on little Bethie" during her first week at Harvard.

After Jeff finished dismembering and reassembling the beds, he invited Beth and her roommate out for their first Cambridge beer. They chatted for a half hour about course catalogues and freshmen seminars and compared notes on where to buy cheap plants and how bad the food at the Union was. Jeff was clearly enjoying his first chance to play the worldly upperclassman (he was a sophomore) and in the midst of a discourse on how not to get lost in Widener Library, he paused dramatically.

"Girls," he intoned, "you are all about to lose your innocence."

Beth giggled while her roommate gave him a jaded, seductive look.

"There is more to innocence than virginity," he said loftily and proceded to lecture them on sex at Harvard.

Even before arriving at Harvard, Beth had been warned about the school's imbalanced sex ratio. She had purposefully chosen a coed school but was still a little wary of the strains the ratio placed on both the men and the women here. But she also had to admit the thought of all those excess men sounded awfully nice after four years in a small, rural high school. And Jeff's conversation made her even more optimistic. Sure the system was rotten but she felt pretty confident she-d be able to enjoy herself here.

"You'll have a great time," he was saying. "There just aren't enough women around so any of you can have your choice of men here. You don't even have to go to mixers, and even upperclassmen go for freshmen. It'll be your best year."

Three weeks later, it didn't really matter if there was a bunk bed or not. Beth's roommate had moved in with Jeff. But it was only October so Beth wasn't too worried. A lot of her friends hadn't met any glamorous upper classmen yet either. She would give it a few more weeks.

Beth waited a few more weeks and then a few more months. By that time, most of her friends were "attached" and she spent a lot of weekends ostensibly studying but actually looking in the mirror to figure out what was wrong with her. And she stopped saying hello to Jeff.

She landed a great summer job in New York and had a brief fling with a wonderful man. She came back in September full of confidence and blamed her freshman disaster on bad luck and bad timing. But sophomore year wasn't much different at first. She finally latched onto a compulsive government major and although she didn't like him too much, she pretended she did, particularly to herself. She was never very happy with him though and finally decided she couldn't put up with either him or his snoring any longer.

Then Beth met Greg singer. He was premed, brilliant, shy and seldom left his room for a destination other than the Bio labs. On the rare occasions that he went to a party, he would walk in, count the number of men there, divide it by the number of the women there, and compute the ratio. Then he'd smile at his host and flee. Beth was going through a premed stage at the time and she would often study with Greg. She owed her high grades that semester not to any scientific aptitude but to her desire not to appear stupid to him. By the end of the semester, she was no longer interested in med school but she was interested in Greg.

He was friendly and talkative while they studied. But the moment they shut their books, he would fidget and stare first at the ceiling, then at his shoes. Beth waited, Beth smiled and one night she finally pounced. It worked.

By the beginning of junior year, Beth and Greg were no longer terribly compatable. She decided to move on to bigger and better things. Only there weren't any. Back to the bathroom mirror.

This time at least, Beth had women friends to spend time with. She spent innumerable hours going out for coffee--and talking about men. She talked about how to snag one, where to find one and why she didn't have one. A lot of the stories her friends related amused her. The others frightened or angered her. Leslie Randall and her roommate, for example, had grown tired of being alone, feeling wounded and rejected, or of going to parties and trying to make sparkling conversation with sparkless companions. So they started inventing crazy things to do. For several weeks, they went to mixers and parties together and pretended they were from Wellesley. When they tired of that game, they would dress identically and outrageously, dripping with makeup and glitter. They appeared loftily bizarre and danced and spoke only to one another. The women planned their escapades as a silly diversion but when they recognized them as a vapid defense, they resumed their old routine and suffered through the parties, always aware of their status as unattached Radcliffe women.

Suzanne Jordan, another member of the coffee clatch, always boasted to Beth about her latest man. Unlike Beth, Suzanne was neither pretty nor slim and had few genuine friends. But she was always chasing somebody. She would zero in on a man, usually a soccer player, drop in on him late night, find transparent excuses to talk to him, run into him "accidently." (Oh, is this the men's locker room?) People laughed at her and pitied her but she was oblivious to the ridicule. She frequently did "get" her man but only on his terms. And the demands were always the same. "You're real sweet, Suzanne," they would tell her. "Sure, you can come spend the night here whenever you want. But don't tell any one, O.K.? And let's not be seen together in public. I don't want the guys on the team to know." Beth listened to the stories, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. She wanted to grab Suzanne, shake her and scream, "Don't you know they don't give a damn about you?"

Sitting around in Tommy's, Cafe Algiers and the Pewter Pot soon began to depress Beth and she started to join extra-curricular activities. All of them. She pretended she was only looking for friends, not a lover and sometimes she meant it. But beneath her resolve to be self-directed and independent she always had an eye peeled for an eligible male. As she confided in a friend, "I'm not exactly looking for one but if a nice one jumped in my lap I wouldn't exactly push him off."

Occasionally, she would spend time with a male friend and wonder, for a moment, whether the friendship had potential for any other kind of relationship. Unfortunately the men concerned never seemed to share the thoughts.

Beth met Bruce Cambell in a section freshmen year and he remained one of her closest friends. He owned a coffee maker, she owned an electric typewriter and they supported one another during their first traumatic, snow-covered reading period. She hovered on the edge of falling in love with him since then. He knew it, he subtly encouraged it but he never reciprocated. "We have a great friendship," he often told her. "Why jeopardize it!"

Richard Fisher was another close friend of Beth's. Sometimes she wondered why they got along so well. She was quiet and gentle and had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. He was brash, selfish and ambitious. He had decided to be a lawyer in eighth grade, and Beth suspected that he really wanted to be a senator, if not the president. But despite his straight and narrow career plans, he had an awful lot of trouble dealing with his personal life. Once every two or three months, he would call Beth and spew out all his troubles, usually woman-related. In between the desperate late night phone calls, they would seldom see one another. He always had a paper to write or a book to read, never time to listen to Beth. After one of their more intense crisis-resolution conversations, they went for a walk by the Charles and watched the sun rise. He took her hand and she wondered if he was finally going to declare his devotion. "It's really a shame I don't go out with women who are as smart as me," he told her. "You are really very sweet." They walked back to her Leverett House dorm and he asked if he could borrow some money. He wanted to buy perfume for his 16 year old girl friend.31Tim Carlson, Mark Lennihan and P. Wayne Moore

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