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Dropping the H-Bomb

By Kenneth A. Katz

FALL registration is here, and I am one happy camper.

I never thought I'd be so excited for it. Last year, I was too nervous about my upcoming first year at Harvard to do anything but hate the event. And I'm still not too thrilled about the prospect of standing in long lines and fighting my way through the extracurricular tent.

But now, more than anything else, the Mem Hall happening means I'm back at home. I'm back at Harvard, the one place where I can finally escape being asked the one nightmarish question that's dogged me--and many other Harvard students--all summer long.

WHERE DO YOU GO TO SCHOOL?

QUITE simply, it's THE question for college students. It's basic smalltalk, a standard request that often forms the basis for an entire conversation.

The college question was popped on me many a time during the summer, which I spent in Israel, working, studying and touring-- and engaging in smalltalk with scores of American college students. One of my conversations involved a fellow named Fred, though my talk with Fred was almost identical to those I had with Jennifer, Chris, Michael or Maria.

I met Fred while waiting for a bus on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street, an Israeli version of Harvard Square with the added attraction of occasional Palestinian terrorist bombings. And during my ephemeral acquaintance with Fred, I had a particularly typical, particularly terrible conversation that revolved around the college question.

"HOT ONE OUT TODAY, huh?" Fred asks me.

"You bet," I say. It is around 100 degrees, so I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt.

We start talking, and before I know it, we both know where the other is living, what he is doing, and how long he has been doing it. That means it is only a matter of time until Fred pops the question.

"So," Fred begins, "are you in college back home?"

I nod slightly, hoping his line of questioning will end at this. It doesn't.

"Where?" Fred continues, smiling. He really seems like a friendly guy.

"In Boston," I answer. Here we go again, I think. Fred looks unsatisfied. I know that the "in Boston" thing usually doesn't cut it, but I thought I'd give it a shot.

"B.U.?" Fred offers. The man really wants to know.

"No," I say. "I go to Harvard." Long pause. Okay, I got it over with. I dropped the H-bomb. Let's move on. "How 'bout this Iraq thing--"

"Really?"

"No, I really don't think we can avoid war. Do you?" I ask. Good move, I think. Throw him off the scent.

"No, I mean really do you go to Harvard?"

"Yes, I do. Did you hear about the Soviets at the UN--"

"You must be really smart," Fred says.

"Actually, I'm near brilliant," I don't say. I go on not to recite my GPA, my SATs or my high school achievements.

"Not really," I say. Looks like this one's hooked on the big H. It'll be useless to resist.

"Oh," Fred says. "Are you in a house?"

I love this question. In Harvardspeak, of course, I should answer "Currier." In normal collegespeak, though, I should answer "no," as I'm not in a fraternity. I think he means the latter. "No," I say. "Frats aren't very popular at Harvard."

"Oh, yeah. You guys don't have frats," says Fred. "So are you in one of those eating clubs?"

"No," I say. "We don't have eating clubs." No reason to start explaining the concept of finals clubs, I think--

"Right," he says. "You got those finals clubs, where you study for tests, huh?"

Wrong, Fred. "No, not in one of those." No need to start getting into the fact that little studying for finals goes on in the clubs or the fact that they're not open to first-years or to women at all.

"So do you party a lot?"

"Never." Enough. I'm sick of always talking about my stupid school.

"Just study, huh?" he laughs.

"I live for the books," I say.

And then, mercifully, Fred's bus pulls up. "Think you'll go to law school?" is the last thing I hear from Fred, as I chalk up yet another great awkward conversation.

NON-HARVARD STUDENTS may think I'm being oversensitive by not wanting to talk about Harvard. Aren't I just another Harvard elitist? After all, the vast majority of college students I met this summer were all eager to talk about their schools--from their school's U.S. News & World Report rankings to Greek life.

I too can remember a time--right after I received my acceptance letter--that I would actually hope to be asked the college question, just so I could say the H-word. Over a year later, though, the mere mention of Harvard foretells conversational disaster.

Enough, enough, enough.

But it's fall registration time now, and I'm back with people who know the difference between a study card and a bursar's card, a hamburger and a hamburger extravaganza, social studies and sociology and a proctor and a prefect.

It's great to be back in the real world.

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