I walk through Harvard Yard three days a week, fairly early in the morning. It’s always the same scene: a small group of tourists waiting to take a picture at the statue of three lies, a few students and faculty walking quickly and bleary-eyed to class, a few facilities management trucks meandering around collecting trash or leaves. It’s a quiet world on the Yard at that time of the day. Peaceful, one might even say. The very definition of civilized, others might claim.
So you can imagine my surprise when I got off the bus to hear a wild, stadium-quality ruckus coming from this normally still world. When I walked into the Yard, I was met by the sight of hundreds of undergraduates running around in various states of face paint, animal costumes, and undress. I hesitated in bafflement, and that may have saved my life, because a band of crimson-wearing revelers poured out of a nearby building and across my path not ten seconds later.
Bemused and a little nervous, I started my short trek across campus, keeping a wary eye on the various groups that were shouting cries of loyalty to various organizations. Blue with antlers off to my right, and past them a different group of crimson jumping up and down around what may or may not have been intended to be an elephant. Distracted by the sight, I was nearly mowed over by another group in blue as I tried to cross in front of Widener—the value of those ridiculous steps suddenly became clear to me.
I asked the security guard at the front door of the library what was going on. “Lord of the Flies? Rites of spring? Over-zealous adulation of the coming spring break?” He didn’t know specifically what the tradition was, only that it was a tradition that happens just before break each year. My boss explained to me that the riotous noise is in celebration of Housing Day, where freshman are sorted into the houses they will stay in for the remainder of their time at Harvard.
“Oh, so it’s like the Sorting Hat thing in Harry Potter?” I was tempted to ask, but prudently chose to keep my dork in check.
Apparently this celebration is a huge deal at Harvard. Surrounding the assignment of housing, binge drinking, nudity, wild singing, flaming boats on the river, and threats of suicide abound (from freshman afraid of being put in the newer houses like those affectionately dubbed “the Projects” or “the Quad”). They vie for spots in the decrepit old historic houses on campus—which are apparently desired for the fact that some students might get the windowless, refurbished servant’s room or a “pass-through,” a bedroom that also serves as the only access point for the bathroom.
…I just don’t get it.
It is funny to me, the things that can inspire people to publicly break all normal constraints on their perception of decency, manners, and generally positive social behavior. I’ve been reading Saramago’s Blindness. And, as with many works of prize-winning literature, the text is bombarding me left and right with nightmare-inducing images of human nature. I don’t read a lot of great literature for the simple reason that my brain can’t handle losing that much sleep on a regular basis. It’ll drive me off the deep end, looking at people through such a lens. I often whine about this connection of darkness and literature we call great, and I wonder why we, as a reading culture, see such greatness in the naming of such blackness, why we can’t spend more time on the light.
And then I walk across the Yard on a Thursday morning and hear of a Harvard tradition and ponder. Maybe we need to read about the darkness to remind ourselves that it is not so far from our actions as we might prefer to believe. Maybe we need the reminder of what the blackness in ourselves looks like to help us recognize how to stay in light.
All the same, if anyone can recommend a bit of great literature that will make me smile and rejoice instead of cringe, I’d welcome your suggestions.