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Blase About First Year At Harvard

By Emily M. Bernstein

Oh sure, I knew exactly what I was doing when I went to college.

People would ask me if I was nervous. I just nodded, all the time thinking, "Didn't I just finish three years in a large boarding school? Didn't I come from New York City? Wasn't I likely to know at least 10 percent of my class? Wasn't I ready to take on Harvard?"

I was ready. No one could tell me anything about what school was like. I didn't read these columns when I got the first-year issue of The Crimson, because I was sure I didn't need anything in them.

I got to college and embarked on my carefully laid-out schedule. I went to the first Crimson meeting so I could start my comp immediately. When I got there, I even laughed at one of the comments that was supposed to frighten all the first-year students. I knew better.

I took all the popular courses. I was too cool to hang out with first-year students, and after a week I never ate in the Union, and never attended first-year parties.

Suddenly it all started to go wrong.

I didn't get along with my roommates, who had seemed ideal at first glance. We didn't fight, but we just didn't have much in common. I spent less and less time in my room, less and less time with my classmates in general.

I didn't make a lot of friends in my class. I hung around with my friends from high school, who were at least a year ahead of me, and I hung around The Crimson. Who had time to meet people?

My high school boyfriend and I broke up. Both of us tried to hang on, but it was just too hard being at different schools. Meanwhile, I had met no one.

Add to this some ongoing family problems and general depression, and you will have a vague idea of how I felt. I have never been so unhappy, I am glad to say, before or since. It was a miserable October, moving into a worse November.

Then came Matt.

He was a senior at The Crimson, who happened to be my comp advisor. At first, he was really annoying. He seemed to expect so much from me, and I just didn't feel up to it. He would ask me what was wrong with me if I took a nap in the afternoon. (Sleeping a lot is, indeed, a common symptom of depression, but I didn't know that then.)

On the other hand, at least he was taking an interest in my life, and he seemed to be the only person at Harvard who was doing so. We started talking, first about superficial things, and then about anything of interest or importance. By January, we spent all our time together.

The time was special. We would eat together, especially late at night, walk along the river or on one of the beautiful Cambridge streets, sit anywhere there happened to be a seat and talk for hours on end.

Matt's one drawback, particularly if you ask my mother, was that he was seriously involved in a long-term relationship from which he was unwilling to extricate himself. It was certainly a major drawback, and an important strain on our relationship.

But, though he refused to go to parties or dances where people might see us together, he never hesitated to spend time and energy talking to me--listening to my problems and helping me work through them. He intro- duced me to his world--his house, his seniorfriends, his interests and passions. And he sharedhis own thoughts and feelings with me.

We became particularly close in March, when Ispent a week helping him finish his thesis. It wasexhausting and often frustrating, but in the endthe experience helped me decide to become a SocialStudies major and write a thesis of my own. Andbeing involved so closely in the life of a seniorwas exactly what a blase first-year student likemyself was seeking.

Ironically enough, Matt's biggest impact on mylife was not teaching me about life an anupperclass student, but in helping me toappreciate being a first-year student. He hadtransferred to Harvard after one year at Columbia,and he always resented the fact that he could notshare in his classmates' reminiscences about theirfirst year--that he never lived in the Yard or atehis meals in the Union.

So while I constantly berated the first-yearexperience and sought my own niche with olderfriends, he spoke about the importance of thefirst year, about how much he missed having been afirst-year student at Harvard, about how much Ihad to look forward to.

In a way, I was Matt's chance to relive hisfirst year, at Harvard, where he wished he hadbeen. I was rushing to get ahead, and he wasyearning to stay back.

It was he who encouraged me to work hard on TheCrimson, in part to make up for the fact that hehadn't been able to compete against those who hadalways been there. It was he who spent hoursdiscussing with me which house I should live inand which major I should choose. It was he whoread publications for first-year students and toldme about all the opportunities that I shouldn'tpass up, in part because he had been forced to.

And much as I tried to pretend that the year wassimply a prolonged orientation session that setone apart from the other undergraduates, Mattwould always remind me how important the year wasand how much I should welcome the time to sort mylife out before it was time to move ahead.

Matt's graduation at the end of my first yearwas yet another crisis in my life. But--notsurprisingly as I look at it from mynow-experienced position--things worked out forthe best. Matt and I spent that summer inWashington and have since drifted slowly apart.But I've found other, wonderful friends sincethen, and I can easily say that each year I'vespent at Harvard has been better than the previousone.

And yet, every year at thesis time, I thinkabout first year and my senior friends. Wheneversomething amusing happens at The Crimson, Iinvoluntarily begin to dial Matt's number.

So much of my Harvard life has been tied to andshaped by my first year, though I tried hard tobelieve that it meant nothing.

I guess I can only explain the impact thatstrange year had on me this way: Matt wastypically absorbed by the idea of these first-yearpieces, since he had never been able to writeabout his first-year experience at Harvard. Onewarm night, as we walked along the Charles, Mattturned to me and said, "This is going to be yourfirst-year piece."

We looked at one another. I know that I atleast was somewhat awed and disturbed by the ideathat our relationship would at some point becomejust another story, one small bit of an entireHarvard experience. And then we began to thinkabout how the mythical first-year piece wouldbegin.

It was Matt who finally suggested that I shouldstart it by saying, "It was a terrible year. Butit was also beautiful."

In the end, he turned out to be right

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