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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Nothing a few games wouldn't cure

By Gay Seidman

Back when he was a high-school senior opening his gothic-lettered acceptance letter, Sam thought Harvard was really going to be the place to be, a place to meet consistently brilliant, well-adjusted, interesting people.

Later that fall, when he cruised into his room in Weld, he realized just how wrong he had been. For there was Todd, Skinny, shorthaired, with tortoise-shell glasses framing large, uneasy eyes. Uneasy is maybe the best way to describe Todd, all round. He was uncomfortable everywhere: in the room, in classes, at meals. He tended to make everyone else a little uneasy, too; although he was basically retiring, he was the kind of person whom you can't just ignore when hou're trying to have a good time.

Sam didn't try to ignore Todd. he and their third roommate, Mark--a very normal sort of fellow--did their best to help Todd adjust to living away from home. They took him to parties and out to play frisbee, and generally tried to include him in most of their activities.

Todd didn't quite fit in with them, of course. Just about everyone has stories about their crazy freshman roommate, and Todd constantly provided more material with which Sam and Mark could regale their other--more normal--friends.

Not that they were mean to him, but when he did things like tell them shyly of a waitress at Brighams with whom he was madly in love (for two weeks, until she told him bluntly she never wanted to see him again), or when he decided to buy piranha (and then kept them in his room--Sam and Mark could hear him at night talking to them), or when he listened over and over again to a single passage from a Bartok concerto--well, it was hard to resist laughing a little.

Still, the three of them got along alright. Todd learned to listen to his Bartok on earphones, and stopped telling the other two when he fell in love with anyone of whom they wouldn't approve. Sure, he got a little hard to take around exam time, when he constantly threatened to jump out the wimdow rather than write the last three pages of his paper, but Sam and Mark laughed that off, too, and cheered Todd up by starting waterfights or going out to Fathers.

That spring, they all decided to room together as sophomores. Neither Sam or Mark were heartless, and it would have been hard to tell Todd they didn't really feel he was one of them. Todd wasn't a bad kid, anyway, just a little more nervous than most.

Neither Sam or Mark felt compelled to explore that nervousness, either. They were pretty well-adjusted themselves, and were a little repulsed by the idea of trying to delve into Todd's personal life. Besides, as Sam put it several years later, they were roommates, not lovers; it wasn't really their responsibility to figure out why the guy looked so unhappy.

Their sophomore year in Winthrop, Todd took a heavy course load, with five courses all in his field of concentration. Mark and Sam saw a lot less of him--he was always in the library. And when he emerged from the downstairs reading room in Cabot, all he did was complain about his work. Sam and Mark tried to persuade him to drop a course, but he just looked glum, talked about his future, and repeated his by-now well worn threat about jumping out the window. That spring, Todd took another heavy course load--only four courses this time, but even harder ones.

By the time midterms approached, Todd's roommates were pretty worried about him--not so worried that they went to any House advisers, but worried enough so that when Todd's father came out east from the midwestern town in which they lived, Sam went to lunch with him to suggest he send Todd to a psychiatrist.

Todd's father, a bluff, plump man who worked in the upper echelons of Xerox, laughed at the idea. His son, he said, was no nut--there was nothing wrong with him that a few football games or maybe a girlfriend wouldn't cure, and besides, those things cost money, you know. Easier to just live through the rough times: no point in worrying about Todd's mood. Besides, his grades are fine--things can't be that bad.

Sam tried to argue with him, pointed out how tired Todd looked all the time, told Todd's father of the number of times Todd threatened to kill himself. Todd's father--visibly annoyed now at the thought that this stranger was telling him how to raise his son--told Sam the matter was none of his business.

Furious, Sam left the table, and went back to his swearing not to get involved in Todd's personal life.

Of course, that didn't help Todd any. The night before an hourly for which he was perfectly well prepared, he stood in the bathroom looking into the mirror and slit his wrist.

Todd's father did not come east to collect the body. He sent his brother instead.

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