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That Velveeta-Like Sameness

Welcome to Freshman Week


The Yard always looks pretty much the same. When it's nice out, you can see things with remarkable clarity--from a window in Holworthy you can pick out people frolicking in front of Matthews, and the sound of stereos blaring out of windows rattles the sills far into the night. Saturday night was that kind of evening, but it was special because it was the first big night of Freshman Week, that unavoidable whirl of partying, anticipation and one-upsmanship that is somehow an appropriate introduction to the strange little world that is Harvard.

Everyone has their own personal Harvard horror story, but many focus in retrospect on their experiences during Freshman Week, and with good reason. Some really enjoy the week--the more outgoing types and those from far away seem to fare best. Saturday was probably the best night to watch the goings-on; it's too soon for people to be turned off by the Velveeta-like sameness of the parties.

Several things distinguish the class of 1981, which arrived in force Friday and Saturday, from its predecessors. Perhaps the most important change is that the entire class is housed in the Yard. In the interest of more normalized relations between the sexes, the Class of '81 boasts the best male-female ratio in the history of the University: 1.87-to-1. Finally, 80 per cent of this year's crop of future leaders have already declared themselves either pre-law or pre-med, according to the Freshman Dean's Office, a statistic that boggles the minds of those who believe in free will.

But Freshman Week itself never really changes, and the masses of people milling in and around Weld Saturday night didn't look much different from the same crowd two years ago. The women wore more makeup, it seemed (and of course there were more of them), and the men seemed to have shorter hair, but the topics of conversation remained the same:

"You look exactly like someone I know. Where are you from?"

"I'm from New Jersey."

"Oh, sorry, you look exactly like a friend of mine."

"Yeah, I've been having that problem a lot these days."

"Hey, here's Steve!"

"No, my name's John."

"Oh, sorry."

People drift around, looking for others to talk to. Some wear a look of cultivated superiority, others look drunk, others just look lonely. Groups of strangers form, usually centered around one or two women, and dissolve just as quickly. In the Weld foyer, a few erstwhile musicians bring out guitars. Soon they are joined by a flautist, and they begin to play: "Heart of Gold," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Johnny B. Goode," and "The Boxer."

A woman sweeps by in a slinky dress with a remarkably low decolletage. Heads turn as she passes, leaving a wake of admiring comments. Men seem bent on cornering women, on getting them away from possible competitors, but they rarely succeed. The ratio isn't that good yet, apparently. No one remembers names. Someone actually asked his companion what his SATs were. A guy wearing a Lacoste shirt (the international symbol of preppiness) climbs the stairs in Weld North, claiming he is "trying to perfect his preppie image."

It's a deep flashback for upperclassmen scouting out the territory, and the memories are fresher than one would like to admit.

Despite the sameness of the scene, there's another difference in this year's freshmen, one that can only be perceived by talking to them. It is the continuation of a trend that started several years ago, part of the incredibly overwritten "new mood on campus," which is now the old mood. It is reflected in the rampant pre-professionalism (that 80 per cent figure is the highest ever) and an increasing depoliticization. This is not just a move away from leftism--although that, too, is evident--but a move away from all political interest or conviction. Of course, it is risky to generalize from a few conversations, but the trend seems to be confirmed once again.

A woman from Connecticut said she doesn't mind the political quiescence. "If there was a demonstration, I wouldn't really get involved in it, because I really don't have any complaints." When asked about her feelings concerning Harvard's stock in corporations with holdings in the Republic of South Africa, she said, "That doesn't bother me, there's nothing wrong with South Africa." She was put off by rioting in New York this summer following the Great Blackout, Round II: "I thought it was disgusting. This is the United States, why did it have to happen?" She said she was not aware that unemployment in some of the looted areas is over 50 per cent. She is an extreme case, perhaps, but nonetheless a case in point.

Another woman claimed she didn't know where she was politically. A black man from Michigan said, "I follow the same politics as may parents do--don't most people? I'm a Democrat." The same man said he wants to go to medical school, because "I'm interested in science and math, and also, I guess there's a lot of money in medicine." He said he is satisfied, so far, with relationships between blacks and whites at Harvard, and of the school itself, "It's beautiful. I really love it."

But it is difficult to concentrate on political questions when there are so many new people around to meet, and you can't blame everyone for that. People are trying hard to have the proverbial "good time," though not everyone seems to be succeeding. Nervousness and self-consciousness abound. "All the Harvard stereotypes are here. Everyone I've talked to is nervous," one woman declared.

An understated sexual tension is in the air. "Everyone here seems to be looking for someone, just about. I'm amazed at some of the people here," One woman said. "It's strange, really. These parties are so bizarre, so superficial," another said.

A group of jocks stand on the Weld stairs. "Soccer!" one shouts, "What kind of wussy sport is that? Look no hands! Nah, I'm just shittin' ya." His companions laugh. Someone spills a half-empty can of warm beer all over the steps. It runs down to the pavement and puddles at the feet of a pretty blonde, surrounded by six or seven men. She is listening to them, but the look in her eyes says she really isn't there.

Someone actually says, "Hey, honey, where've you been all my life?"

Around one a.m. the crowds start to thin out. Groups head back to their own rooms, still boisterous, shattering the sudden quiet in the Yard, but outside Weld some late hangers-on continue. Off to one side, a group of Wellesley freshmen waiting for the last bus out exchange giggles about the people they've encountered. "Did you see that guy? He was such a jerk! How come everyone is so insecure here?" one asked.

There's good reason to be insecure. The transition from being a highschool hotshot to a lost freshman is an enormous one, and in the first few days it's all too easy to feel intimidated by the seemingly-brilliant people here. A freshman describes here roommate: "I don't think it's going to work out. I mean, she just rattled off all the A.P. courses she took, how she'll probably take sophomore standing, how much she's read. I have to ask myself what I'm getting into here; she's already made me feel inferior."

The feeling, apparently, is not uncommon. Some thrive on the atmosphere. But for many, you can tell it's going to be a long, hard year.

In the middle of a truncated interview a man asks me, "If you're not a freshman, what the hell are you doing here?" I can't answer him, because watching the experience is almost too painful.

At the height of the partying, I look up to see someone looking down on the action from a second-floor window. The person does not look happy. A woman in the crowd notices the observer too, and waves, shouting a cheery hello. Instantly, the face disappears from the window. The woman below shrugs her shoulders and returns to the fray.

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