Sarah and I climb the steps to the top of Kirkland’s A entry with a pile of party invitations in hand. Our plan is to hit six houses, the Yard, and Cronkhite all in one go — not only to drop off the envelopes but to make a toast to each location. It’s a nondescript Tuesday in October, but for us, river run is happening now.
We didn’t intend to turn dispensing invitations into a river run, but somewhere in the planning process we realized neither of us had completed the time-honored freshman tradition of drinking at every river house to prevent getting quadded on Housing Day. For Sarah, it was because her first year was in 2020, the Covid year when freshmen were only allowed to spend the fall on campus. For me, it was because I transferred to Harvard as a sophomore.
What the hell, we both thought.
My version of Housing Day came in the form of an email sent in August of my sophomore year, which I spent entirely in New Jersey. While Harvard let freshmen onto campus, they decided they didn’t have room for the 15-person transfer cohort that was equally as new to the school. I wouldn’t live in my house, Winthrop, until halfway through college.
When I finally arrived at Harvard as a junior, I knew exactly five people on campus. Looking for community, I threw myself into clubs that stuck to varying degrees and got caught in endless cycles of “let’s get a meal” that never materialized into anything. At dinner, when peers would reminisce about the last time they experienced “real” Harvard, I stayed silent, wishing I could understand what they meant.
When Sarah and I drop off invitations at Winthrop, we stop for a drink in my suite. Sarah finds the twisting hallways confusing, so I lead us through them. I think about how junior year me would be comforted knowing I finally got the hang of the layout.
At Leverett, we find our friend Sebastian, who invites us into his suite and proudly displays his unobstructed view of the Charles River. Sarah and I shouldn’t stay long if we want to make it to all the houses, but hearing Sebastian explain his Halloween costume is worth it. “Eats, shoots, and leaves,” he explains with a giggle, showing us a panda onesie and a nerf gun. He has to repeat it a few times before I finally get the pun.
After climbing multiple stairwells looking for a single room in Russell Hall, Sarah and I decide that Adams is the worst house in not only all of the river, but all of Harvard. Its only redeeming quality is our friend Cindy, who welcomes us into her suite. Seeing her dorm room makes me double down on my opinion of the house.
I ask Sarah if she wants to stop by Lowell, Mather, and Dunster, the houses we have no invitations for. “Probably not,” she says.
Objectively, whether or not we complete a full river run does not matter. I already live in a river house, and so does she. The River Gods freshmen pray to through this strange ritual have no say in what House you get, anyways. But I’m still disappointed: it matters to me to replicate this tradition as closely as possible.
Ever since I got to Harvard, I’ve wanted to make my time as “normal” as possible to correct for the abnormality in my path to this institution. The week after I received my acceptance letter, I watched every “day in my life at Harvard” video on YouTube I could find, hoping to nail down the layout of campus through the backgrounds of their videos; I didn’t want to be the only person my age getting lost in the Yard. I thought about taking a gap semester to save myself from a sophomore spring of online school, but I didn’t want to graduate off-cycle. The kitchens in Winthrop’s overflow housing were tempting, but I wanted to live in a normal suite.
If I tried hard enough, I thought, I could get close enough to the “real thing.” And doing river run — in the “right” way — would be a step in that direction.
Of course, in many ways my experience here is normal. Thanks to the pandemic, no one in my year has had the college experience we were expecting. But when people used that fact to comfort me, it would frustrate me instead. My peers only had a semester and a half of an on-campus freshman year, but I had nothing. In the larger context of the pandemic, I knew my own woes were trivial. But that didn’t stop me from feeling this way.
My river run was not the real thing. We never made it to Lowell, Mather, or Dunster. There was no thrill of sneaking past security guards, knowing what you’re getting away with. There was no desperately texting any upperclassman you know for advice.
But what my river run did have was conversations with the network of friends I’ve made in the past two years. It had a friend who was willing to do something stupid and spontaneous with me. It came with a sense of familiarity that only builds with time. And when I realized that, I gave up on having the real thing.
At Eliot, our final house of the night, we share a drink with our friend Michael. One of his suitemates shows me his jazz record collection, and Michael and I laugh about our shared experience writing archaeology theses. Leaving Eliot, I don’t feel the need to trek to another house. I can simply go home.
— Associate Magazine Editor Tess C. Kelley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.