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No Respect For Practical Jokers

By Joshua M. Sharfstein

Rather than tell long and drawn out stories about my first year roommate who loved to study topless, flexing and grunting, and who slept with the window open throughout winter because "it makes me feel like I'm back in Oregon," and who spent hours locked in the bathroom humming show tunes, and on, and on, and on ...

I'm not going to tell those stories. They are very sensitive portions of the past that, quite frankly, that I think my roommate would like to forget. I'm rather wait until he runs for political office.

So instead, I am going to tell other long and drawn out stories about my first year at school--a year that arguably was the turning point of my life. When I entered my first year, I was a maladjusted, sexually frustrated 17-year-old whose idea of a good time was a night of computer games. And when my first year ended? Well, I could legally vote--and that's probably about it.

But I did encounter three things in my first year that have haunted me throughout my college experience: Harvard arrogance, Harvard social life and Harvard humor.

Harvard Arrogance

"What will I tell my parents when I flunk out of school?"

That was the key question as I fled a group interview for a first-year seminar on the works of Orwell and Agee. I had entered the interview under the foolish impression that we weren't supposed to have yet read the works of Orwell and Agee. But two of the interview participants had brushed up on their English lit the previous night. They dominated the entire interview, dazzling the world-famous professor with details of the more intricate plot twists of the books.

I was stunned by their motivation, and tried to exchange glances of mutual sympathy with the other students at the interview who also had not done any background reading. Instead, I encountered furrowed brows and hands raised to speak! No fewer than five consecutive comments began, "Now I haven't read that particular book, or anything by Orwell or Agee, or any English literature at all, really, but it seems to me as if..."

I sat completely mute. To keep myself from panicking, I imagined that I wasn't in an interview with 10 Harvard students smug in their knowledge that they knew so much more than me. I pretended I was a bird, soaring well overhead, flying free and fast and far and aiming my excrement right on the tops of their heads.

Of course, I didn't get into the seminar. And by that time already I was convinced that my Harvard academic life would be a failure. As it turns out, I would do well, and some of the people who did get into that seminar almost failed out of school. And while I have relived my bird fantasy hundreds of times, in other classes and sections, I have at least stopeed mistaking Harvard arrogance for real intelligence.

Harvard Social Life

Not to generalize, but every single relationship that I witnessed in my first year--bar none--had the following form:

Boy and girl study. Boy and girl go out with roommates on weekends. Boy and girl complain that they have no romantic life. Boy and girl wish for that first girlfriend/boyfriend.

Boy meets girl.

Boy and girl spend a little time together. Boy and girl spend a little more time together. Boy and girl are convinced they will never be apart for the rest of their lives.

Roommates get mad at boy and girl for never being around. Boy and girl tell each other roommates don't understand. Boy and girl whisper they have a love that will last forever. Boy and girl know this even though they have never dated anyone else.

Boy and girl's relationship goes sour. Boy and girl walk around campus like somebody died. Boy and girl suddenly find themselves back in college with everyone else. Boy and girl live happily ever after until the next time they meet a boy or girl.

Harvard Humor

It seemed like an innocent joke.

For the past three days, photocopied notices with block lettering announced that "all hot water would be shut off in Grays Hall" because of some sort of construction project or something. One day it was to check the pipes. Another day it was to clean the system. You know, technical stuff.

But we really hated taking cold showers. Who doesn't, right?

So my roommates and I decided to play a little joke. We made notices with block lettering and posted them all around the dorm. The notices said "WARNING--WE ARE FLUSHING OUT THE PIPES WITH DANGEROUS AND POTENTIALLY LETHAL TUNGSTEN SULFATE COMPOUNDS. DO NOT TOUCH THE WATER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES."

In our practical joke fervor, we left nothing to chance. We posted the notices in the same space as the others. We pointed the notices out with concerned faces to people we hardly knew in our dorm. We asked around if anyone knew what tungsten sulfate was (note: there is no such thing as "tungsten sulfate compounds").

Joshua M. Sharfstein '91 is co-editorial chair of The Crimson.

We did make one fatal miscalculation, however.We assumed people would have some sense of humor.

Wrong. Within an hour, an "emergency actionteam" of students had mobilized to inform everyGrays resident of the impending danger. They wentdoor to door with words of doom--rife withtheories about the debilitating effects oftungsten sulfate compounds ("It will sear yourskin right off your hand. I know. I took the ChemAP.")

They contacted the senior tutor.

When the team got to our door, we felt like Dr.Frankenstein, aghast at our creation. One of myroommates spilled the beans. We posted upapologies in the dorm. We took a long strollaround the Yard when we heard that the footballtackle from upstairs wanted a few words with us.

In the end, however, we learned an importantlesson. There is no "Harvard humor" that, drawingupon a common base of experience, allows one tolaugh with Harvard students. To thecontrary, Harvard humor means laughing atHarvard students.

It was a realization that would serve us wellover the next three years

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