Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Debunking the Double

September-October 2003

On the third day of my eight-week stint as a summer-school proctor, the mother of one of my charges reminded me of the difficulties that can arise from sharing a bedroom at Harvard. She was compact, the sort of woman whose tan is meant to be offset by tennis whites. When she swept into my room, her mortified daughter trailing behind her, I was immediately conscious of both the chip in my right front tooth and the unflattering fit of my Harvard Summer School-issued T-shirt.

"Why," she asked, grinning furiously and gesturing at a closed door with one manicured hand, "does that girl have a single?" Her own daughter, one of the half-dozen 16-year-old girls for whom I would be responsible, had been placed in a five-person suite with four bedrooms. "It doesn't seem quite fair that two of the girls will have to share a bedroom."

"Gosh, I don't know," I said. "The housing office is just inscrutable that way." When I am nervous, I tend to affect a vaguely Midwestern ingenuousness and say "gosh" a lot—a tic borne, I think, of my conviction that during a crisis one ought to model oneself after Dorothy Gale. (Under less trying circumstances, the word is absent from my lexicon.) I also tend to use polysyllabic words to prevent people from asking whether I really go to Harvard.

"I know why people have single rooms during the year," the woman said, narrowing her eyes to underscore her canniness. "It's because they pay more."

"Oh, dear, no," I told her. "Gosh, no. That's not the way it works here."

"Really?" she said, looking at me. I smiled an ingenuous smile—close-lipped, to hide my chipped tooth—and folded my arms over my tent-sized T-shirt, trying to deflate its ampler billows. The woman wasn't taken in. Glancing at the Converse All-Stars I'd been trying unsuccessfully to burrow into the carpet, she asked in a honeyed voice, "You said you went to Harvard?"

During orientation, veteran proctors had warned us against worrying too much about the parents. "Just remember: it's not you, it's them," one grizzled proctor had told us, and we had laughed the blithe laugh of the innocent. But in this case, I knew him to be right. It was not my chipped tooth, not my ill-fitting T-shirt—no, not even my feigned ingenuousness that had provoked the woman's disdain. At least, it wasn't exclusively any of those things. "They just want what they think is best for their kid," the proctor had told us about the parents; like so many others, the impeccably groomed mother believed the unshared bedroom to be the holy grail of Harvard housing.

 

Although I no longer share such beliefs, I remain sympathetic to those who lust after singles. My friends at other schools take it for granted that having roommates means sharing a bedroom; at Harvard, though, the widespread bedrooms-plus-common-room arrangement means that having a bedroom of one's own is usually considered both an attainable and desirable goal. Matherites tout the singles-only status of their housing; other undergraduates cursed with n-1 bedrooms (where n is the number of roommates) push a bed into the common room to make ersatz singles.

I know that not all bedroom-sharing arrangements are felicitous. Single-preferring friends who have insisted upon anonymity are quick to cite doubles' disadvantages, which include: "Smells. First hamster, then pickled feet"; "Getting annoyed at the silliest things"; and "My roommate (don't tell!) taking forever to turn off his alarm in the morning. I'm a really light sleeper, so I would wake up the second it went off and by the time he turned it off I was completely awake...and he always [set his alarm to wake] up earlier than me."

An informant who requested the nom de confession Becky Sharp bitterly remembers a freshman-year roommate whose sins included "taking up too much space, putting her rubbish on my bureau, refusing to take out the rubbish and recycling bin, and, crème de la crème, pilfering chocolates and Teddy Grahams off and from my desk"—this last offense "finally" squelched with the offering of a single Reese's peanut-butter cup "with a piece of paper emblazoned with the plaintive and reproachful 'ENJOY.'" Among her roommate's less specific sins, "Becky" recalls, were "just the mere squandering and flaunting of wealth." Her sophomore year, the luckless "Becky" roomed with a young woman whose faults included "commandeering the room arrangement, too much intimacy with boyfriend in room, irregular hours," and "unthinking rudeness ranging from unapologetic banging on the door at seven o'clock on a Saturday morning, or leaving a cup of caramel macchiato to spoil and fester for several days on her desk" to "addressing one in baby talk with much horrific cooing."

Especially during freshman year, when the Freshman Dean's Office assigns roommates, personality clashes can make living in a double uncomfortable. Assistant dean of freshman Wendy Torrance explains, "The hope is that students will be accommodating to, and learn from, differences between themselves and their roommates. We hope [they] will be able to come to mutual agreement about how to share their space and that arriving at mutual respect for differences in opinion or worldview will be an essential part of a Harvard College education." When clashes arise, Torrance says, "We don't have a set 'procedure'" because "Every situation is different and, like other issues that arise for students, the College handles each on a case-by-case basis. Those working with students, whether in the Yard or the Houses, try to help them develop the skills to make their needs known, and to listen carefully to those with whom they live, and we listen, too. We then work with students to address the issues that they have identified."

In John Updike's short story "The Christian Roommates," the protagonist, a Harvard freshman saddled with a flamboyantly sanctimonious roommate, "envied all the roommates, whatever the bond between them—geography, race, ambition, physical size—for between himself" and his eccentric roommate, a vegetarian who spins thread in his spare time in imitation of Gandhi, "he could see no link except forced cohabitation." The roommate's habits drive the stolidly Midwestern protagonist to "the verge of going to the student clinic, which had a department called Mental Health." Eventually, though, the roommates "finished out the year sitting side by side at their desks as amiably as two cramped passengers who have endured a long bus trip together." Both the protagonist's midyear frustration and the roommates' eventual reconciliation ring true; most of my anonymous informants ("Becky" being a notable exception) remember reaching a rapprochement with their roommates. "Never really completely adjusted, but I guess it was easier than I expected," one said; another overlooked her roommate's conflicting personality and "got along just fine, because we were both messy." A third says diplomatically, "I guess I had to learn how to live civilly with people who are not friends per se." This is the sort of lesson impressed by a double's forced intimacy.

 

When I arrived in my Weld suite two Septembers ago, I made the same observation my charge's well-groomed mother would later make to me—there were only four bedrooms for five girls—and came to much the same unhappy conclusion: however the rooms were apportioned, it wouldn't be quite fair. And just as my charge's mother would be, my new roommates and I, while trying to decide upon housing arrangements during our first night together, were leery about the prospect of sharing a bedroom.

Part of the problem was that—like many children raised in bedroom-rich suburbia—we'd never been obliged to share a room before. One roommate announced in a throaty accent that, as an only child, she had never been obliged to share anything, and didn't plan to start now; another confessed a little breathlessly that she'd "fallen in love" with the big, many-windowed single bedroom she'd been sleeping in until we decided on more permanent arrangements. Raised by a mother who ranks self-sacrifice chief among feminine virtues (throughout our childhood, her favorite book was The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein's story of the deciduous martyr whose gifts—of her leaves, her apples, her branches, and her trunk—to an insatiable boy ostensibly leave her "happy"), I volunteered to share the double for the first semester.

And I was happy. The sweet-natured girl with whom I shared a bedroom was—but for her bizarre devotion to the Swedish rock group ABBA—a faultless roommate: she went to bed early, didn't drape her dirty clothing on my desk chair, and imported no boyfriends. And if our living styles weren't entirely compatible (our other roommates delighted in pointing out the contrast between the prim hospital corners on my top bunk and the comfortable tangle of bedclothes on her lower one)—well, we were both content to make concessions. She never said anything about the reading light I left burning all night or the times I slept through the alarm clock I'd set for 4 a.m. Buying earplugs to muffle the strains of "Lucky Love" was the least I could do in exchange.

Because of the painlessness of my freshman-year bedroom-sharing, I barely winced when I arrived last September to find that Winthrop House had foisted a senior single upon my roommate and me as a sophomore double. Sure, the bedroom was barely big enough for a bunk bed and a pair of bureaus, but my roommate and I were united in our pursuit of neatness. She used a T-square to align the furniture at right angles to the wall; I mopped with fanatical regularity. Visitors to our room would recoil from the Teutonic tidiness and from the Pine-Sol odor that hung in the air. "It's awfully... clean," they'd say, visibly disturbed. "Thanks," we'd say, recognizing a compliment when we heard one. When my roommate returned later than I from winter break, even our doll-sized bedroom seemed much too large; I drifted around it, bereft. When I stayed late at the library, she would ask me the next morning, in plaintive tones, where I'd been: "I've missed you."

And the girls I looked after this summer? They drew lots to determine who would live in the double for the rest of the summer-school semester. About a week after they arrived, the summer's first heat wave struck; that night, I went to their suite to make sure they weren't breaking curfew. I found all six of them—including the girl with the coveted single down the hall—clustered around a fan, nestled as close as Girl Scouts around a campfire. They looked up at me and smiled beatifically, innocent of rooming conflicts. Actually, they didn't leave the suite much: they inscribed "CANADAY HERMITS" on the dry-erase board outside the door, having begun their Harvard educations in living civilly and having forgotten, so far as I could tell, their mothers' insistence on their having their own space.         

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