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Games First-Years Play

By Jason M. Solomon

FROM a pessimist's perspective, your first week at Harvard is essentially a string of inane, superficial conversations. From an optimist's perspective, it's a great chance to meet and converse with 1600 fascinating people... for 30 seconds each.

Although Orientation Week may seem like a tryout to be a game show host, it's really just a game. More accurately, it's a series of games that you've been playing since you arrived first and claimed the only single in your room for yourself.

The Hometown Game

"Where do you live?"

"Thayer."

"No, I mean originally--where are you from?"

"Tulsa, Oklahoma. And you?"

"Westfield, New Jersey. You've probably never heard of it."

"No, I haven't. I switched planes in Newark once, though."

"Yeah, Newark." Knowing laugh.

"Yeah." Weak smile.

The goal of forming some kind of bond, as weak as it may be, has been reached. Chalk one up for both sides. Forming the bond was the real point of the conversation, while finding out where the other person lives was secondary.

At about this point, you notice a deafening silence. How to escape? You can't say you hear your mother calling you for dinner. Perhaps it's time to move on to another fairly innocuous, non-contact, non-competitive game.

The Name Game.

"You went to Hotchkiss? Do you know Kate Lindsay?"

"Sure, I know Kate. We were good friends. How do you know Kate?"

"I don't really know her. I'm friends with her sister's boyfriend."

"Oh."

"He's a nice guy."

"Kate's real nice, too."

Typical Orientation Week conversations commonly use this technique of seizing upon any obscure connection as a way of keeping the conversation going. In this game of "Do you know...?" the goal is to find common ground, as worthless as the ground itself may be.

Don't underestimate the power of finding common ground, though. Not only does common ground pay dividends on the name game scoreboard, it can also be a way of starting many future conversations when the games are over. But by now, the games are starting to become more competitive and even a little brutal.

The SAT Score Game.

"I heard that this guy down the hall--you know, the one who's always carrying a Rubic's Cube--got 1600 on his SATs."

"Wow. That's pretty amazing, huh?"

"Yeah, I mean, I did pretty well, but that's incredible."

"You did pretty well, eh?" Slowly but cautiously.

"You know, 1560, something like that."

"Yeah, that's really grea-..."

"What did you get?"

"1570."

You'll find a lot of competitiveness among Harvard students--and not just among the ones who have their sciencefair award-winning volcanoes on display in their common rooms. Often the cut-throat impulse hides, lurking just below the surface, ready to spew forth when you casually suggest a friendly game of Computer Risk, or even worse, when you begin playing...

The High School Glories Game.

"So, what kind of things are you interested in?"

"Well, I was into physics in high school. You might have even heard of me. I was the Nebraska state physics runner-up last year."

"That's great."

"What are you into."

"I'm kind of into journalism. You know, I was editor-in-cheif of my high school paper--for three years straight."

"Hmmmm."

"So I might write for the newspaper or a magazine here."

"I see."

High school achievements are nice, of course. But now, they're scrapbook material, memories. Class presidents, editors of yearbooks and newspapers, math and physics whizzes, soccer and cross-country stars abound here. We all excelled in high school; otherwise, we wouldn't be here. It's time to start over.

The Trash-Orientation-Week Game

"You having a good time so far this week?"

"Yeah, it's been OK. How about you?"

"It's all right, I guess. But you always have the same conversations, you know, like where do you live, where did you go to high school, do you know so-and-so..."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. It's so stupid...[Silence]...So, where do you live?"

"Here or at home?"

The Orientation Week conversation games will soon be over, for better or worse. Enjoy the bobbing and weaving of skin-deep conversations while you still can. Profound responses to age-old questions will be expected from you soon enough.

And keep in mind this paraphrase of a famous quote from acting Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky, "You will be a first-year student for a year. You will be at Harvard for four years. Orientation Week will be here forever. And the conversations will always be the same."

Jason M. Solomon '93 lives in Quincy House. He comes from Ridgewood, N.J. He went to Ridgewood High School. He doesn't know Kate Lindsay.

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