Too close for comfort

The odyssey of the freshmen in Lionel B

"The question is," Gary says, looking back after three years, "were we strange when we came in, or did we became strange?"

Of the 18 members of the Class of 1984 who were assigned to Lionel Hall B freshman year, only 10 are graduating today, including the authors of this article. Three have yet to go beyond sophomore year. "People have simply lost it," notes Carol, or they have found themselves in ways that took them away from here." Among those who have found themselves elsewhere are Suzie, who left Harvard after two years, married a childhood boyfriend, and is now raising a kid in New Haven, and Jeff, who left sophomore year and now works in a bank Among those who may have "lost it" is Shawn, who has tried three times now to return to Harvard each time unable to complete a semester.

Lionel was, many people now say, Harvard diversity run wild Some Lionel residents speak in vaguely conspiratorial terms of how such an odd mixture could not have happened by chance. Kathy notes that fully four of the 18 members of the entryway grew up on welfare, a startling percentage for Harvard Carol notes that 15 of the 18 came from public schools, while the other three went to parochial schools, with not one real "preppy" in the group. She points to the male suite on the first floor as an example. "A Mennonite from Indiana, a Jewish kid from Great Neck with rabbinical aspirations, a shiny kid from Vermont just amazed by the city, and a Mexican-American from California. They seemed to me a kind of testimony to Harvard's conception of diversity." Kathy, who has taken three semesters off, adds, "we just didn't have many people on the regular track."

The extreme differences in viewpoints and outlooks would not have mattered so much if Lionel people had been less close. But in part because of its physical isolation. Lionel is hidden from the rest of the Yard behind Hollis and Harvard Hall-and in part because of the temperament of the occupants. Lionel residents spent almost all of their time together. They are almost every dinner together in the smoking room of the Union, had Friday happy hours and Saturday Night Live parties, and a seemingly endless stream of group activities.

Carol soon took on an informal role in creating the sense of family. She often arranged the birthday parties, and it was she and Mary who kept their door open late and the beanbag chairs available. It seemed entirely appropriate when May rolled around and the dorm sent her a mother's day card.


The result was at times an almost oppressively friendly and strong bond of community, unusual anywhere at Harvard. As Kathy describes it. "I could sit in my room on the third floor and hear the door slam downstairs and hear footsteps, and know who it was, where they were going, and why." And Jeff remembers, "I look back on how close we were freshman year, and it blows me away."

For many freshmen, a dorm is little more than an address in the Yard Dorms often become close, sometimes remain anonymous, but rarely does a dorm develop enough of a character to have a real imprint on each of its members. Yet despite its many problems, or perhaps because of them. Lionel B residents today still seem to feel just such an imprint Looking back on it now, their words seem to trip over each other, rapid and contradictory, as if welcoming the chance to try to make sense of a year they even yet do not really understand. Most seem to agree that at the center of their freshman year was a paradox: Lionel was one of the closest groups of friends they had ever been a part of, almost a family, yet at the same time its individual members were so radically different in background and temperament that it soon became clear that the center could not hold. "They certainly tried to expose all of us to diversity, that word we've heard so often." Gary says. 'I thought they might have tried to choose people who could live together but there seemed to be a lot of divisiveness."

As it turned out, much of the year consisted of various members of Lionel having shocked and traumatic reactions to the rest of the dorm. In one rooming group, all four of the roommates had vastly different views on whether and when they should rotate among the best and worst rooms in the suite, and the disagreement nearly came to blows. Meanwhile, on the first floor, Jeff, who grew up on a farm in rural Vermont, could not comprehend his roommate Manny's relationship with Suzy, the girl next door. Suzy, who had led a tough life growing up in a troubled family situation in the South Bronx, and Manny, a cynical, often dour Mexican-American from California, were unlike anyone Jeff had ever seen before. Manny and Suzy's loud and often violent fights worried many people in the dorm, but it was Jeff who seemed scarred by it all. "I had never seen anyone deal with each other like that," Jeff recalls now. "All I could compare it with was the soap operas I had seen as a teenager. I don't understand how two people can be so caring one day, and so violent the next."

In several cases, the gap between individuals and the rest of the group seemed insurmountable. Shawn, above all, was someone that everyone liked a good deal, but only eventually grew to realize they could not save. She was instantly likeable, and entered as Lionel's only certifiable celebrity; she had been a regular on the children's television show "Zoom," and was often recognized in the street. She was quiet yet friendly, and everyone considered it entirely in character when on her birthday she gave out presents to everyone else in the dorm. But behind the composure, residents of Lionel soon realized. Shawn had a profound inability to cope. People vaguely knew that she had originally entered with the Class of 1983, but only lasted a few days into freshman week. Shawn made it through freshman year, but her roommate Kathy says that she only made it because of the supportive atmosphere she found in Lionel. "She doesn't deal well with stress, her way of dealing with stress is to go to bed," Kathy says. "I was sort of pulling her out of bed and making her write her expos papers."

Such widely different backgrounds and world views often made communication difficult between the various members of Lionel At times. It was a literal inability to communicate Gary recalls that Robb's girlfriend's mother had a Boston accent that was so thick that when she called, he took messages that said her name was "Korea," rather than "Currier," as he later realized it was. At other times, it was a case of bizarrely mixed signals. While there was no doubt that Suzy was kidding, there was also no doubt that Jeff, who was considerably smaller than her, was legitimately afraid when she attacked him. "Suzy almost raped Jeffy twice," Gary recalls with a laugh. "Once she had him pinned and started taking off his shirt, and he came running up to our room for shelter." His fear would prove warranted late in the year when she accidentally broke his jaw.

In some cases, there was little communication at all. Many members of Lionel remember that Tim, the Indiana Mennonite, bad trouble talking with other members of the dorm. Carol recalls that when she and Tim once talked about rape, her feminist views and his religious ones clashed so violently that the discussion eventually had to be broken up by force. Others, however, remember how little Tim ever said. Gary perhaps noticed it most, since he and Tim drove west together over several vacations. "We drove west for 15 hours and he'd say absolutely nothing," Gary recalls.

The difficulties in communication often extended to families of Lionel residents. Gary recalls that he had never spoken a word to anyone like his roommate Scorch's mother. He remembers that when she called, she would be just as happy if Scorch wasn't home, so she could barrage his roommates with a seemingly inexhaustible series of questions about him. "She always had all those questions," he says. "Does Scorch have lots of friends? Is he happy? One time, I felt like saying. 'Yes, he's happy, he's not on the phone with you. I'm unhappy.'"

Finally, Lionel's proctor was perhaps the most confusing aspect of an already very confusing situation. In describing their Lionel experience, almost everyone begins by offering an opinion of Larry. In addition to serving as proctor and taking pre-med courses, Larry spent much of the year as a founding force behind the Committee on Central America (COCA). Everyone agrees that Larry had a huge influence on dorm life, but no one agrees how. The words that emerge from people's descriptions of him range from "Mentor" to "Moonie," from "inspiration" to "brainwashing."

Jeff says that Larry did a "wonderful" job. "I think he was a great proctor," says Jeff. "I've heard enough stories about proctors that I appreciate him. I really think that he cared, he's just a caring person." But others speak of him as a political leader who used his proctees to support his causes, showing less concern for those who did not help in political work. "A lot of people felt there was a wall there because of COCA," says Gary. "People felt they couldn't go to Larry and say, 'Look, I have problems.'" Kathy adds that There was a sort of feeling that there was an inner circle and an outer circle."

If there was an inner circle around Larry and Latin American politics, it certainly began with Daniel, Mary, Carol and Fernando, who became the self described "Fearsome Foursome" of Latin American lobbying, who devoted much of their waking hours to planning forums, writing newsletters, and organizing marches. "I look at my picture for the Dunster House facebook, and I had circles under my eyes and I was pale," recalls Carol. "Mary and I used to joke about crossing eating and sleeping off of our list of things to do." Fernando remembers that this interest in Latin American causes extended even to Lionel residents who were not very active in COCA. "I think a lot of people in the dorm were socially aware. Even if they didn't do a lot of the work, they at least wore the buttons and showed up at the events."