YOU PROBABLY have seen this happen, too:
One day in the spring of freshman year, I was ambling through the Union, looking for somebody I felt like sitting with for lunch.
Suddenly, from somewhere behind me, I heard a crash, the f-word, and something shattering. By the time I turned around, macaroni and cheese, soggy beans and syrupy sliced peaches were swimming across the floor. And some woman I had never seen before was entering terminal embarrassment.
Then I heard clapping. First, it was just a couple of distinctly visible jerks. But then it began to spread, down one table and up another, and within 10 seconds, the cavernous warehouse was positively rumbling with applause, cheers, whistles. A true ovation.
When it first began, this woman--whose name I never did catch and who I think got Quadded, because I've only seen her about twice since then--looked pretty flustered and mad. But as her indignation proved increasingly futile, she seemed to relax a little bit. By the time the busboy showed up with a mop, I think she was even laughing.
This may sound kind of weird, but the reason I mention that story is because now, three-and-a-half years later, it succeeds better than anything else at summing up What Harvard Is All About.
What may sound even weirder is that, actually, I don't even think that's so bad.
HARVARD IS HARSH. Harvard is snide. Harvard is jaded. Harvard, above all, loves to give you shit. Whenever it can.
What's all the more striking about those thousand freshmen razzing the tray-dropper is that nobody ever told them to. Nobody ever sat down and said at a proctor group's meeting, "If you see someone trip and send their lunch flying all over the Union and get embarrassed, you should give them sarcastic applause so you can make them feel even more stupid." It was as if the whole thing happened by instinct, as if people who end up at Harvard have a second sense about trashing each other.
If I had to give the single most important difference between the me of today and the me of Saturday morning, September 11, 1982, I would have to say that four years of Harvard did for my what 10 seconds in the Union did for my secret friend. I'm a good deal better at laughing at myself.
I've been nimble enough that I haven't dropped my tray in the Union or even the Lowell House dining hall demolition derby. But I've learned the lesson of not taking anything too seriously in other ways--none of which is necessarily exclusive to Harvard, but which I think is still worth talking about.
First of all, there's Harvard Humor. Earlier this year, a friend of mine remarked that people here don't tell the conventional kinds of jokes. Being funny here is being more caustic and cynical than everyone else about everything. It's attacking as many sacred cows per minute as you can. Catholicism. Child abuse. Masturbation. The space shuttle astronauts. The welfare state. Women's rights. If you let any Harvard student let you know there's something you take seriously, get set to hear a nasty joke about it.
Then there are sections. I like to think that I invented the phrase "winning section," back in sophomore year. You can win section by persuading the TA that you actually did the reading better than anyone else, or in a much more profound, meaningful way--by singlehandedly attacking the 15 other people and what they all think. I only won one section the cool way, in my sophomore history tutorial. But that was fun.
And then, of course, I know a lot of seniors who go to section to play "waste a freshman" when they're in a bad mood. I've been wasted by seniors a few times myself, even after I moved on from Weld 10. I got wasted by a professor in front of 300 people when I had the gall to wear a hat to his Gen Ed class. (I had rolled out of bed too late to shower, and so I grabbed my Union Pacific Railroad cap to cover my greases). I even got wasted once by Henry Rosovsky in front of 700 people in "Japan" class. (He asked for an example of a country with a very low level of per-capita income; I said "Kuwait" because I for some reason thought I heard him say very high level of per-capita income. I can still hear exactly how he snorted, through the microphone of Science Center B, "Hah, Kuwait.")
ONLY ONCE here--and this says a lot about how incredibly easy a life I've had--did I get wasted so hard that it hurt. It was spring of freshman year, when I was spending about 56 hours a week for eight weeks comping for The Crimson. I may have had some misgivings at first, but I have known since I was 14 that I want to be a newspaper reporter when I grow up, and by the end of those eight weeks I wanted to get elected to The Crimson more than I had wanted anything else in my life. I had to write 18 stories to get on. I wrote 31.