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The last time I got up at 6 a.m. was my first day at Harvard. My two high school friends and I were first in line at the Business School parking lot. We waited patiently until the gate was opened and waited a little more until our car was allowed to drive into the Yard. Thus began my freshman year. Even though I was an eager Harvard freshman. I didn't get up that early to check out The Tasty or The Store 24. There was something else I wanted very badly.
I wanted the single.
I had gotten my rooming assignment in the middle of August. Wigglesworth A-11 was going to be my haven for that dreadful freshman year. I was assigned three roommates and figured. I still don't know why, that there would be two singles and a double to house four of us. It wasn't such a dumb assumption. The room was costing my parents well over two grand. Besides, I had seen Brideshead Revisted and figured rooming at Harvard could not be drastically different from that at Oxford, the butler excluded, of course.
Around 7 a.m. on that fateful morning, I picked up my keys from Mr. Dan O'Donoghue and sprinted past Widener to the A entry. I flung the A-11 door open to find my sizeable common room with a fireplace and three large windows looking out on Mass. Ave. So far, Brideshead Revisited. I walked to the center of the common room and saw three doors. Hey, I thought, I am right on the mark! Three bedrooms and a single for this earlybird. I slowly opened the first door, and in place of my desk, a sink, instead of a dresser, a tub, and alas, in the place of my bed, a toilet. It then dawned on me that Harvard had cheated me of my dream single.
No use getting too upset, I told myself. At least, as the first one to arrive, I would have the privilege of picking the better of the two bedrooms. The first things I saw when I opened the left bedroom door were cans. Dozens and dozens of empty Bud cans carpeted the wooden floor. On the second glimpse, my unbelieving eyes met my first roommate crashed on the lower bed of a bunkbed, snoring the roof down. Still in shock I hurried to the other bedroom only to find another guy recuperating from a hard night's drinking. Instead of Brideshead Revisited, the scene hauntingly reminded me of another movie, one starring John Belushi. I learned my first lesson at Harvard that day. Regardless of effort, drive, and burning desire to accomplish anything, there were always will be someone else ahead of you. I couldn't even finish second in a race of four.
At best, the first year was going to be a culture shock. I attended the Bronx High School of Science, sometimes known as the Wonks High School of Science. I must admit that the school was full of wonks and what some would call geeks. Hell, we didn't even have a football team. I will even admit that for two full years, I carried around a TI 57 on my belt. The problem, however, wasn't that I came from a school designed to produce besnectacled future Engineers of America. It was that, since my early acceptance to Harvard in December, I had prepared myself exclusively to deal with the future yuppies of America. And boy, was I in for a shocker.
I didn't really believe Harvard's proud declarations of its student diversity. Instead, I expected to meet young cornheads in the midst of their Andover-Harvard-family business treks. Well, I got a homogeneity of another sort. My roommates Jerry, Steve, and Jim were all from the east coast, varsity or j.v. athletes, and Irish. I don't have to delve into Weber's theory on bureaucracy to say that the Freshman Dean's Office royally screwed up. It wasn't that they were all from the east coast. I'm from Westchester. It wasn't that they were all Irish. But how can anybody with brains put three jocks with a poor Korean kid whose high school athletic achievement went no further than a membership on its math team? And I was terrible even at that.
Well, I knew I was in for a whole new experience when, on the first weekend of school, Jerry said "JI, let's have a keg party." That night, I met the rest of the freshman football team (Jerry soon became its captain), saw my first keg, lost half of our furniture, learned to remove everything off of my desk for parties, and put on first three pounds of the 30 I would put on my freshmen year. And, of course, the always friendly Harvard University Police paid a visit because they did not like the fact that we were collecting money to pay for the beer.
Enough on the culture shock.
* * *
One thing I expected to see and experience a lot was sex. My high school sweetheart was attending a school at least a thousand miles away, and although I had the best time of my life when she visited me in October, our relationship went off the cliff after that. No problem, said this freshman confidently. I go to Harvard. Women should soon be breaking down doors to see me. Well, this was true for everyone in Wigglesworth A-11 but me. My only attempt at a relationship with a Harvard woman ended on an exclamation by one who said, "You want me to go to bed with you or something?" That killed my ego enough to realize that this Harvard man's libido wasn't going to be satisfied by any Harvard woman.
Onward to Smith.
There were four of us. All freshmen and all psyched to test our newfound status as "The Harvard Man." Our first stop in Northampton: the pharmacy. The second question (you can guess the first; it was at the pharmacy): how do we get to Smith? Alas, my first encounter with a Smithie tells the sorry tale.
"Where do you go to school?"
"No, really. Where do you go to school around here?"
"I really go to Harvard."
"Come on. I'm a senior. I know about these things. What school do you go to around here? UMass Amherst?
What could I do to make this woman believe me? So I whipped it out--my holy bursar's card. No one spoke to me afterwards. I had committed the worst of sins: I shoved my Harvard I.D. on some poor unbelieving woman. So much for that trip.
Unlucky on my roadtrips, I was forced to endure the fact that my roommates had no problems at all with women. My bunkmate who so graciously occupied the couch for the five nights my ex-girlfriend visited paid back the favor with hefty interest. He started to date a woman seriously in late October, and it still goes on strong after almost three years. But the price was my intimate relationship with the couch. I really didn't mind sleeping on the couch two or three times a week, but many times I would come back to my room late only to wake up the couple while dragging my pillow and blanket out into the common room.
Like I said, I really didn't mind this too much. What I did mind was being treated like a yo-yo. Another roommate also started seriously dating a woman. The problem was that his bunkmate stoutly refused to join me on the couch. So sometimes I found myself kicked out of my bedroom and other times kicked into it by the other roommate who made full use of the pull-out feature of our couch. I also faced a moral dilemma everytime I needed to use the facilities. What really got to me wasn't being jacked around the room according to my roommate's sexual needs. It was the fact that I could not return the favor that made me feel small. I knew that either of these guys would sleep on the couch for months on end if I had a decent-looking excuse.
* * *
Forced to find a release for all the unused energies, I comped The Crimson. I went into the comp meeting thinking of possibly comping news. The news comp requirements were read, and I headed straight to the photo lounge. Eight weeks later, I was elected to The Crimson and began my long love-affair with the building on Plympton St. I spent nights and days learning more about photography than I thought possible. But what kept me there was this intangible sense of belonging that I desperately needed. My roommates and I did get along, and we are still good friends, but we were so fundamentally different and travelled in such completely opposite circles that I could never belong where they were. I stopped dealing with my roommates altogether by the second semester. I ate with my Crimson friends, went to their parties, visited their homes during vacations. Sometimes I even slept at The Crimson. The photo lounge became my home, and I hoped that one day I would become its proprietor.
But as I was being sucked deeper and deeper into the Crimson whirlpool, I realized that I had simply escaped from one homogeneous group and entered another. As my rooming group was Irish and jockish, the Crimson was Jewish, New York, and too serious. My Harvard changed from Andover cornheads, to Irish jocks, to Jewish editors. It seemed that there was no escape from homogeneous groups, and I feared that I would not fit into any one of them.
In my preparation for the yuppies, I bought a dozen Oxford shirts. In an effort to fit in with my roommates. I drank and played hard. My desire to belong at The Crimson drove me to view my work there as career-oriented and as if nothing else mattered. The diversity promised to every incoming freshman existed from the outside of the "Ivory Tower" but not from within. Not for me anyway.
Schoolwork entered my mind once in a while, but I was just too burnt out. My high school required four or five years of just about everything, and I was determined to take a break from the neck-breaking cramming I had suffered throughout those four years. I can't even remember some of the courses I took freshman year, but most were pretty good. And most of them required at least a dozen books. Of course, only the foolish and the lonely read everything, but at least I bought everything the Coop had to offer. By the end of my college career, I figure I will have spent more than $2000 on coursebooks, and one thing I will have to show my children for my college education will be the magnificent library built on unread textbooks.
A little more on sex.
Some say appearance is everything. As far as parents are concerned, appearance really does mean everything. The night before everyone was to clear out of Harvard for three months of psychological recuperation, my roommates, our proctor, and I downed at least three bottles of Jim Beam and Stolies. I passed out sometime during the night and awoke early next morning when my mom opened my bedroom door.
She walked in quietly and a shoe caught her motherly attention. It was sitting on my bureau in my room, but it wasn't mine. The shoe was black and had at least a six-inch heel. Not knowing that it belonged to one of my roommate's girlfriends, my mom first took a close look at my bed and, noticing that the mess on the matteress held only one inebriated soul, she slowly scowled around the room for that evil being that had corrupted her invaluable son. Not finding anything in the room, she gathered enough courage to open the closet slowly, expecting to find the culprit. Disappointed only to find my laundry, she was resigned to believing that the evil corrupter had escaped her moral net. Of course, when she asked about the shoe, I only smiled. It's funny. My mom shares the same delusion I suffered. Besides, my mom would not have such a healthy respect of my sexual prowess if I did get that dream single. Mom, if you only knew.
You would do well, young plebes, to heed the following advice. First, lie a lot on your rooming application. Telling the Freshman Dean's Office that you're mildly messy is inviting big trouble. Since no one describes himself as a certified pig, you have to say that only anemically immaculate roommates are acceptable to be grouped with only mildly piggy roommates. Don't say you are in athletic type if all you do is dance to Jane Fonda. Third, leave your ego at home. If it's not crushed by Joe Einstein it'll be crushed instead by some woman. And finally, take your time getting to your room.
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