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It’s a wonder that 96 percent of us will survive until graduation, considering the abuse this fine institution wages on us just before the holidays. Whether we’re muttering curses about papers and problem sets on the plane ride home or quivering from the nightmares of reading period and exams to come, winter break never seems to arrive soon enough.
The great curse of Harvard’s antiquated calendar, of course, is that we don’t get a real vacation until intersession. Friends back home react with fresh amazement every December to the news that the worst still awaits us. “You haven’t had finals yet? Wow! That sucks.” Yes, it does, and each year we feel less inclined to fake a smile.
While they ponder New Year’s resolutions about eating right, partying more or picking less dorky friends, we are too preoccupied for such sweeping visions. We might pledge not to forget all the testable material from our classes—no matter how irrelevant cellular automata begin to seem with every hour outside of Cambridge—and we might theorize about how not to waste another reading period without either productivity or pleasure. But we must stay focused, lest we return dangerously distracted.
The sprint to the finish leaves us with an embarrassing affinity for self-pity, and I admit that I’m as guilty as anyone. Thinking that we were above this Harvard pathology, my blockmate and I made big plans last December to make a stand on behalf of our suffering classmates. We dreamed of recruiting dozens of our friends to wear shirts with various therapeutic messages. They were to say things like, “I don’t care how much work you have,” “Relax and stop whining” and the oh-so-clever “Zzzzzip-it.”
We were ambitious and we were driven; Harvard had taught us well. But when we left the dining hall and trudged back to our rooms, we remembered another lesson from our Harvard education. We would never have the time to follow through.
In a culture where every waking hour must be productive, where late-night snacks are “brain breaks” and student libraries stay open after Leno, the only thing worse than wasted time is free time. Should we stumble upon an idle second, our minds race to figure out what deadline we are forgetting or which meeting we just missed.
We have been thoroughly institutionalized, to steal the words of Morgan Freeman’s character Red in The Shawshank Redemption, and nothing betrays the influence of the Harvard ethic on our psyches better than a short stay in our pre-Harvard worlds. Old pleasures like watching TV, going to the movies or hanging out in the Starbucks parking lot lose their novelty after only a few days. High school gossip, while always good for a few laughs, is still high school gossip. And anything is safer than a moment to reflect on the horror we left behind.
All we have is free time when we go home, and we can hardly stand it. We never admit it to our friends, of course, even if they notice our frequent glances at the loaded backpack in the corner of our room. We don’t tell them that the only student Harvard loves more than a workaholic is a student it can make into a workaholic. Everyone else takes a year off.
Instead, we do all we can to downplay the slave-driving, self-denying, stultifying, I-feel-my-sense-of-humor-dying dimension of the Harvard experience. No sex in the Ivy League, they say? Radcliffe Union of Students hosts a dildo party every year. All work and no play? We run naked around the Yard twice a year (even if only to jazz us up for finals). Just a bunch of goody-two-shoes valedictorians? So what, we all pee on John Harvard before we graduate.
Nobody’s fooled by our feeble examples of flexibility and free-spiritedness, of course, and those who have known us the longest can see the crimson in our camouflage right away. Regardless of the belated rebellion we claim, even if we have the new piercings, sexual wisdom or addictive habits to prove it, they see the same determination to succeed they remember from the pre-smackdown glory days, back in the little pond.
They know that even if we have discovered the joys of procrastination, we still work 80-hour weeks and fret over all the details. They notice when we absent-mindedly refer to the trip back to Cambridge as “going home.” And they recognize that we are often so antsy that we shake the dinner table.
As emphatically as we may bid “good riddance” to Harvard when we hit the pavement this week, it won’t be long before many of us are counting the days until we return. Idleness is a frightening prospect after months of over-stimulation, and our patience—not to mention our attention span—is even shorter than our break.
Blake Jennelle ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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