I made a lot of mistakes when I was 16. I wrote some very bad short stories, made plenty of poor sartorial decisions and was a terrible girlfriend. But in honor of this Harvard-Yale weekend, I’m revisiting one of the worst mistakes I made at 16: I spent a summer at Harvard.
I don’t know that I realized it at the time, but it was a pretty terrible summer. Besides the Boston humidity and the fact that I was taking intro micro- and macroeconomics during the summer (seriously, what the hell was I thinking?), I discovered that Harvard just plain sucks. I was living in the freshman dorm, Canaday, that was built in the 1970s to be riot-proof. It was literally the ugliest building that I have ever seen, let alone lived in. The walls were cinder-blocks, the stairwells grey concrete and every suite was finished with nubby carpeting. Since I never got around to really decorating my suite with anything more than some glitter-glued posters I made on a whim my third or fourth day, it felt like a very sunny prison. Not to be too didactic, but could you imagine Yale constructing a building like that, let alone housing freshmen in it?
My days went a little like this: I would wake up for class at 9 a.m., sit through three hours of econ lecture, go to lunch and then … I don’t really know what I would do. Nap? Read? This was the summer when I developed a strange enthusiasm for Au Bon Pain. I would spend hours reading mass-market nonfiction and eating caprese sandwiches at shoddy grey tables — there didn’t seem to be anything better to do, or any better place to spend time.
There were never any parties. There were maybe a few times where I played rap music and forced some people to grind with me. But that was about as poppin’ as it ever got in Canaday. Every Saturday, I would go with all of the kids in my entryway to the local movie theater to see a live action reenactment of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Yes, that happens EVERY weekend at Harvard. For the second four weeks, there were beautiful Venezuelan girls living in the suite below me. They went out in Boston all the time, because they had these fake IDs they made in Microsoft Paint. They would come back late, and we would lie on the spare bed in my common room, my back against the wall, their heads on my lap. I would listen to them tell stories about the strange men that hit on them, smelling the alcohol on their breath, feeling sort of alive but mostly very bored.
I don’t think I ever told anyone that I’m gay even once that summer, which is strange because at that point in time I had already been out for about two years. There just didn’t seem to be a point. Not only were there not any lesbians around, but I’m not entirely sure that any of the people I hung out with ever did so much as kiss another person the entire summer. This could be hard to generalize to all of Harvard, but every time I’ve been back since, I’ve felt this distinctly puritanical vibe, like someone out there must be having sex, but I certainly couldn’t prove it.
I met a lot of really nice people while I was there, though the vast majority wound up not going to Harvard. I’m sure plenty of people that actually go there are great. And that’s the thing about Harvard: It’s probably just a place full of normal people. They’re probably not appreciably worse than the population at large. But in the same way that something about Yale makes us all overcommitted and social climb-y, there’s something about Harvard that makes everything seem a little bleak.