This week I was going to write about the ins and outs of sectional politics and its stock standard movers and shakers. You know, all those various distinct personalities that make up a typical Harvard discussion section, in all its awkward-silence-filled, unread and uninformed glory. Such a line of conversation amongst friends usually plays out in a fairly predictable way. Everyone in the group groans loudly in disgust at predictable tropes like The Freshman, who has highlighted the entire sourcebook (with annotations!); The Jaded Thesis-Writing Senior, usually hailing from Social Studies or Hist and Lit, who stumbles in at 17 minutes past the hour (if at all) draped in flannel pajamas with artfully styled bed-head hair; and of course The Pass/Fail Dilettante, who uses his thick-as-a-doorstop textbook as a primitive form of camouflage, working under the assumption that if he can’t see the TF, the TF probably can’t see him.
We all know these types. But what I realized was more astonishing about section-centric conversations, rather than the inevitable appearance of these nameless prototypical characters, is the number of real-life acquaintances that seem to pop up again and again. Section is, after all, a random conglomerate of students culled from different places who share only a free time slot on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. in common, and yet it isn’t just the stereotypes that remain a constant from one person’s section rollcall to the next. Sure, I don’t really know that kid in my roommate’s class that she is forever complaining/raving about, but I certainly know of him—name, concentration, thoughts on Kant as argued in that Social Analysis class sophomore year. And for such enigmatic figures to disappear at the end of the semester and then reappear once again in an entirely different context two degrees of separation away is a joyful moment which should be enough for even the most dedicated Disney-hating hermit to want to burst out in “It’s A Small World After All.” Such chance encounters with ghosts of section past (and for any aforementioned Jaded Seniors who long ago gave up on accruing section participation points, feel free to substitute an extracurricular, party or Annenberg meal) are akin to those other secretly thrilling yet entirely unexpected epiphanies of college life, like the delightfully gooey sugar cookies that Harvard University Dining Services occasionally bestows in an act of mercy on the hungover masses at Sunday brunch, or to use a section-related analogy, those blessed TFs (usually found in the English department) who decide that extension requests are not only to be granted, but are to be granted sans sanctimonious sighs as a Good Thing.
But back to those recurring chance meetings: This is not something that can be written of as merely serendipitous, for that would imply some kind of deliberate wish-work. No, it involves far less work than that: put simply, Harvard College is an ideal size for both knowing and not knowing people. Moving beyond the rather terrifying psuedo-existensial abyss implied in that statement, I’ll stick to some simple math. An undergraduate body of around 6,500 is large enough that it would be quantitatively impossible to know everyone, except perhaps if you happened to be former Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04. But 6,500 is also small enough that you can feel like you know of a great many of that number, and can talk confidently about mere acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances and even those people that you don’t know at all save for an eerily accurate stored set of vital statistics garnered via the osmosis of names and faces which occurs organically at such a happy-medium-sized college.
And so, while I’ve often rued the lack of individuals at this school who are unable to intelligently debate the ins and outs of Demi and Ashton’s contentious love affair or whether the unbelievably ditzy blonde in Lost in Translation really is a nod to a pre-Justin Cameron Diaz, there’s never any dearth of conversations to be found centered around a more provincial incarnation of the Hollywood gossip mill: namely, the personal minutiae and love-lives of prominent Harvardians whom everyone in any given dining-hall discussion knows everything about, but who may as well actually live in L.A, for all the deep and meaningful conversations any of us have had with said campus celebs. Which is why we all persist in walking through the Yard conjuring the middle names and class years of passersby without even a cursory exchange of polite pleasantries. This place sure has an unusual sense of shared “community,” and yet the truth’s in the numbers: The very Harvard state of simultaneous knowing and not knowing seems set to continue with as much predictability as the proverbial B+ in Social Analysis. Speaking of which, see you in section.
Amelia E. Lester ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.