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During the spring and summer before I entered Harvard, my favorite activity was reading Edward Fiske's guide to colleges.
That's Edward B. Fiske of The New York times. Big-time education editor. Well-respected. He must know what he's talking about.
I just knew that somewhere, buried in the description of Harvard's inaccessible professors and overachieving students, was that pearl of wisdom which was going to get me through this place. Or at least put me on the right track.
Fiske was not an optimist about the chances of being happy at the most prestigious school in the country. "[I]t's not necessarily the best school for every bright high school graduate to attend," he wrote. His key piece of advice went something like this: Harvard can be a big and impersonal place. So the key is to find a niche, "a comfortable academic or extracurricular circle around which to build your life." Once you've got your spot and your group of friends, then you're all set, according to the Fiske Theory of Getting Through Harvard Alive.
Despite (or maybe because of) my many Fiske readings, I was in one of my quasi-rebellious phases come September. Fuck Fiske. Fuck The New York Times. Fuck The Establishment.
I decided not to follow his advice.
What was I going to do at Harvard, the land of opportunities? Maybe try for Phi Beta Kappa. Not. Or maybe try to become president of The Crimson. Too much work. Or maybe attain the esteemed title, King of the Comp.
The "comp" seemed like an evil concept before I arrived at Harvard. It was described in those Fiske-esque, ultimate-insider guides to college as the embodiment of typical Harvardian ruthlessness. Harvard: so high-powered, so many superstars, that there's not only cutthroat, steal-the-books-from-the-library-and-hide-them-und er-your-pillow competition in academics--but you've got to fight for your right to join extracurriculars as well. Scary stuff.
But once I got here, I found that the comp was the best part of Harvard life. The socalled "comp" etition was virtually nonexistent. If you want to join some organization and put in a little bit of time, then you almost always get into them (unless you try for some twisted, elitist, social clubs like the often unfunny Lampoon). You get to bum around doing whatever you like with minimal responsibility. No ruthless cuts. Harsh, extracurricular competition is one of the bigger myths at this place (beating out such whoppers as sex at Widener Library and oppressive political correctness).
You never know what you might gain from a comp--or one of the inevitable, pointless introductory meetings which precede each comp. These meetings are, on the surface, little more than a chance to put your name down on another list. But Masters of Introductory Meetings, who often become Kings of the Comp, find ways to get something out of these gatherings.
"So, what do you think of this meeting?" I asked the girl standing next to me at the Independent's intro meeting.
"Seems all right," she said.
That was the first of many deep, insightful conversations with my future girlfriend.
Comps let you meet people who share your interests, particularly upperclass students, who you might otherwise never meet: the administration, in its constant bowing to the altar of tradition, does its best to isolate first-years from the rest of the college.
"Don't go outside the gates of the Yard," a dean may tell you at one of those orientation meetings where they also tell you that cheating and plagiarism are generally bad things that are frowned upon by the University, "unless we put you in a Union dorm--in which case you can go to the Yard and the Union. But whatever you do, don't go down to the river. Save that privilege for next year."
By the way, a few have disagreed with the theory that the comp is the ultimate vehicle for making the most of opportunities in Harvard life. "It's the classes that are really stimulating," one said. "I meet so many people at parties!" said another. But these misguided souls graduated several years ago.
So I decided to live my first year at Harvard as a perpetual comper. The Independent, Crimson, WHRB, theater groups and many others. I was constantly trying out things, testing these groups and keeping myself from falling into niches at the same time, seeing what I liked and how I fit.
My biggest extracurricular decision came early in the year. Sunday night was the night of conflict. That was the night when the Undergraduate Council, Harvard's student government, met, but it was also the same night CityStep met. I had to decide whether to run for the council or try out for CityStep.
The council would be the expected thing to do, a logical continuation of high school. It would also be most appropriate, or so Dad's argument went, for someone considering a distinguished career in government. But college isn't really the time to be distinguished.
I thought back to high school, when I was a fairly typical extracurricular jock. Newspaper, student council, blah-blah-blah. All standard fare. I was sick of it by the end of senior year: sick of running meetings, sick of organizing committees, sick of calling people foractivities.
It was time, or so L figured, to do something different, something unlike what I'll probably be doing in 20 years. It was time to challenge myself with something new--which is where CityStep came in.
Now here was something different--teaching fifth graders about dance-theater Harvard students venture into Cambridge schools, get kids to express themselves and put on a show at the end of the year. Here was a challenge--especially for someone whose primary dance experience consisted of tap lessons at the age of six.
Their introductory meeting had a video--big plus. City Step looked fun: nice people, cute kids, no real dance knowledge required. What the hell?
So I decided to try out, which was pretty darn terrifying. This was the one tough tryout. They taught us a series of steps which we were supposed to remember and actually perform. Like true dancers! With expression! And energy! I figured that if I remembered most of the steps, I would be lucky. Looking back, I realize I used much more concentration for these auditions than for any exam I've taken at this place.
At the auditions, people joked around. It was supposed to be kind of fun. We were dancing and playing improvisational theater games. But I was all business. One woman I later taught with said to me later in the year, "Jason, I like you a lot and everything, but I thought you were such an uptight little prick in tryouts." No matter. I was determined to make it and needed to make sure my rightful didn't become to attracted to my left.
Well, I didn't trip or forget too much, and I was rewarded with a spot in the company. It seems that being a male can sometimes have affirmative action value after all.
Each week, I looked forward to Sunday night, when we learned the big dance numbers to the sounds of Janet Jackson or Queen Latifah. Typically, I forgot the steps (or simply couldn't do them), and would fall hopelessly behind the rest of the group. Luckily, I had a partner in crime, Seth, who had similar trouble entering into the world of dancing Wemade fun of our ineptitude while talking sports from the safety of the back row.
I was also fortunate to have a devoted director who was willing to stay with me after rehearsal and go over the steps at my slower pace. "You want me to iump. Kick and land how." I would ask her. She would just smile and show me the step again for the umpteenth time.
I learned from the rehearsals that there were some great upperclass students out there. That you can do anything if you work hard enough (see Horatio Alger, Ross Perot and the American dream). If I can pass for a dancer on a Sanders theatre stage, anyone can.
Then, of course, there was the actual teaching. What a sham. The idea that someone who could barely remember dance steps for himself could teach others went beyond the bounds of reason. But I employed some nice, twisted logic to justify my presence. I figured that the kids could look at me and say, "Well, if he can do these dances, then certainly I can do it. I mean, I can't look any dumber than he looks." I fancied myself a martyr of sorts--letting myself look bad to boost the self-esteem of the young people of Cambridge.
Kids say and do the darnedest things. I guess I knew that already, but I was confronted with examples in every class. For instance, we had this one student, Adrian, who was constantly starved for the spotlight. Every once in a while, he would decide he wasn't getting enough attention and just sit down in the middle of the dance. Never an excuse. He just felt like sitting down.
Or he might leave a step in the middle, walk over to me and say "Jason, come here, I have to show you something." We're trying to learn a dance, Adrian. Show-and-Tell is scheduled for this afternoon.
The kids also taught me that fifth grade boys are awfully violent. We would do this exercise in a circle where everyone said their name while doing some kind of signature move in a 1-2-3-4 rhythm. So we would go around the circle, taking turns with our personalized moves. "Anna!" one would say with a smile and friendly, open hands.
The came "Brian!" who spoke with a determined look, his hands holding an imaginary gun and machine-gun fire coming from his lips. And "Abe!," who would typically say his name, clutch his heart and drop to the ground as if felled by an arrow. At least he got up by the end of the four-count.
I wouldn't say I really found a niche in CityStep. As much as I loved my fellow teachers, I sometimes felt like the only one who hadn't been a high school cheerleader in a former life (or a few year ago). And I wouldn't say I felt like I made an important contribution to society. CityStep claims to be this program for city kids who wouldn't be exposed to the stuff otherwise, but I taught as many upper-income as low-income kids (Cambridge is a pretty diverse place), making me wonder why some of the kids couldn't just go get real dance lessons. And I don't know that a little bit of dancing really gives anyone's self-esteem such a boost that they go out, get straight As and conquer the world. But I had a tremendous amount of fun, got to know a lot of great Harvard students and Cambridge kids, and felt like I successfully met an unusual challenge.
I continued dodging niches and commitment by leaving CityStep after my sophomore year. you can only pretend to be a danceteacher for so long, and I figured I should do more with all those comps I had finsihed during my first year.
Where did my odyssey of comps leave me? Well, these days I play around with The Crimson's weekly magazine, 15 Minutes, broadcast basketball games on WHRB, and talk with middle school kids about American government and the law (about which I know only slightly more than dancing.)
I guess I forgot to talk about friends and roommates and even a few classes which I might have liked, But that's not what I'll re member. I'll look back at my first year at Harvard as a time when I bounced around, dodged commitment and avoided responsibility --becoming King of the Comp in the process.
More imprtantly, I spent my first year becoming the best uncoordinated, no rhythm, zero-flexibility, kick-right-no-sorry-I-meanleft dance teacher in Cambridge, And I'mdamn proud of it.
Jason M. Solomon '93 is deputy magazine editor for The Crimson.
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