Commencement 2010

Freedom to Float

I felt like crap. Literally. After what seemed like a series of unfortunate personal and circumstantial setbacks, I’d been subjugated in my sophomore spring to the lowest caste of the Harvard housing system: floater. The word itself conjures up images of things fecal. A floater—an upperclassman unable to form a rooming group who is then randomly assigned a room and bunkmate for the following semester—is a lowly untouchable, a creepy loner left to bob about in a cesspool of social rejects and awkward bedfellows.

“That stinks,” I thought to myself as I saw my name listed for all to see on the door of the Winthrop housing administrator’s office. She’d posted the names and e-mails of us floaters in hopes that maybe we could form a room together before it was too late. We could then enter the lottery together, pick a number together, scour floor plans together, and hope for the best together just like everybody else.

Yeah, right.

I couldn’t help but feel so socially inadequate. What had I done wrong? I had friends. I was friendly. Maybe too friendly? Maybe friendly in the wrong kind of way. People liked me. People liked me? I thought people liked me. Somewhere along the line I had just messed things up. I blamed it on the fact that I hadn’t bought a futon for my five-person suite freshman year. The futon would have brought us together the way Harvard wanted. If only I’d bought a futon. I tried to forget about it as the term ended and I went away for the summer. Months passed and, thankfully, so too did my self-doubt.

Until the e-mail. It was instant déjà vu. The Winthrop housing gods revealed to me my floater room number and my new floater roommate. B-32. Nick. An @fas e-mail address to which I was encouraged to write. The anonymity made it feel like freshman year all over again but with budding excitement replaced by jaded frustration. Wasn’t this supposed to have worked the first time?


I included my hometown, concentration, and extracurriculars. I pushed send. A week passed. Then a month. Then I began to worry. Something was wrong. Who was this Nick character? Armed with his Anglo-Saxon last name and my Facebook stalking savoir faire, I hunted him down. From Jersey. Tennis player. Buzz cut. That’s about all I got.

With little warning and much haste, the buzz-cut jock and I moved into our dorm together. We had nothing to talk about, so we shimmied about the room in near silence. But as he heaved his final box into the room, Nick looked around our common room and said something.

“It’s kind of big. Do you think I should bring my futon from home?”

“Yes!” I blurted. “Yes, I think you should do that.”

It was just how it was supposed to be. We were so different but, somehow, once Nick brought his old red futon into our room, things started changing. Nick and I were like Bert and Ernie—no homo. My jeans were skinny, his loose. My voice loud and high, his deep and low. My boyfriends loved chatting with his girlfriends as they sat on our futon waiting for us before double dates. Nick and I invited people over in the early evening to sit and drink on our futon. We ate drunk food late at night on the futon. We talked about the people we were dating on the futon and months later when we broke up with those people we talked about them even more on the futon. With the help of a droopy red couch, two floaters became friends.

Floating hurts, but I believe being plopped into murky water could benefit more than a few Harvard undergrads. The College should maintain its incredible housing system with all the social and academic perks it has offered to students for the past century. But at the same time, it should still seek to lessen stigma and anxiety surrounding floating. Although a difficult task, Harvard should better attempt to create a culture that emphasizes the freedom of floating.

Charles J. Wells ’10, a former Crimson news executive, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.


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