The lanyard effect

Yesterday was freshman move-in day on the Harvard campus, and there could have been no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was the case.

There were all the usual signs. The queue of overloaded family vehicles might have been the first indicator, coiling all the way around Harvard Yard as though attempting to strangle buildings built centuries before automobiles were even thought possible and trees planted when green was just green, not “the new Crimson,” as Harvard is now so politically correct to point out.

The cars belong unmistakably to the parents of Harvard students. Nary a Chevrolet or Ford dares to show its face on move-in day; nearly all the queuing cars are Mercedes, BMWs, and Volvos, almost as if the vehicles are as ashamed of America as many of the students purport to be here. If a parking lot could aspire to the status of the final clubs which many of these eager young firstyears will “punch” within a year’s time, Harvard Yard on move-in day would be it.

Then there are the parents. There are a variety of these—some dragging, others being dragged along. This, no doubt, is not much different from move-in day on any other college campus. Students have reached varying degrees of assertiveness by the time they are ready to begin college, while parents have (not always correspondingly) resigned themselves to their changed role with varying degrees of success. Some students are more than happy to have their parents drop them off on the curb, while others quiver at the first sound of the German motor purring away into the distance. The same is true of the parents who practically move in with their students for the first week or so of the experience. The only thing more odd than observing a student trying to run away from his parents on Day 5 of the orientation program is watching a student still happily sauntering everywhere with hers.

Meanwhile, in Harvard Square, businesses of every flavor switch into high gear. Banks set up tables with (apparently) enticing balloons, offering everything from free money in the checking account to a chance to win a trip to Maui or a fantastic new computer. The local Starbucks (plural) ramp up production to meet the needs of frazzled parents who would probably much rather  be drinking somewhere (and something) else. Above all, the various competing Harvard tours hawk their wares at high volume, with very little regard for historical accuracy or, to put it more bluntly, the truth. Unsuspecting parents blithely drink in the massaged fiction offered by the well-instructed tour guides at the rate of “just” $25 a head, which also just happens to be the “low, low” amount needed to open a checking account at the local credit union.

And so we come full circle.

Above and beyond all of these familiar move-in signals, however, there are… The Lanyards.

Anyone who has been at Harvard for at least one school year knows that the surest sign of an incoming freshman is The Lanyard, a small cloth necklace used to hold the key to one’s room and intended (as freshmen apparently presume) to be worn around the neck. I suppose the logic is unassailable: if you clip your room key (and perhaps also your university ID) to your neck, you can’t lose them. (My own first year of college demonstrated otherwise, but of course no one ever listens to me…)

The Lanyard is just absolutely signature Harvard College Freshman. No one else would be caught dead in one, but the freshmen—all 1600 of them—traipse to and fro on campus, fully lanyard-ed and ready to do battle with any college dorm door as long as it happens to be their own. (Which, in a week when many of them are also being exposed to alcohol for the first time in their lives, is not always a total guarantee.)

To be fair, the freshmen have been warned. For example, the Harvard Crimson (motto: “Writing for a fairly mediocre college newspaper makes you a vastly superior human being, and by the way you don’t need to check facts, grammar, or other stuff too good either”) counsels as follows:

After you get your photo taken, an employee of the University will likely hand you a lanyard on which you can put your ID and room key. Don’t do this. It’s important not to lose these items, but at the ripe age of 18, one should be able to do so without the help of a collar. (“Freshman Week: Accepting Your Awkwardness,” 8-20-2009)

And for once, the Crimson is right. Sooner or later, all the freshmen figure it out. By October, some of them have already stopped wearing The Lanyard altogether, while others have covertly transitioned to a beltloop-and-pocket arrangement. By the time everyone returns from winter break, there are few lanyards to be seen, and these veteran freshmen are now one step away from mocking incoming newbies for the same flagrant fashion offense the following autumn.

What interests me about all of this is the mob mentality it evinces. At one point early in the academic year, it’s cool to wear The Lanyard. Everyone is doing it, and no one wants to be the odd one out. Much later in the year, the cool thing to do is not wearing The Lanyard, but making fun of those who do. In some sense, it’s almost a rite of passage.

I tried to think back to my own first year at Harvard College, but I don’t really recall for how long I wore The Lanyard. Certainly, there is no photographic evidence of my having ever done so, but that may be because I made sure to destroy it all. Honestly, though, I don’t think it was for more than a week. I just didn’t like how it looked.

At the same time, though, the story didn’t end there. At some point when I was packing up at the end of that first year, I must have saved my lanyard, because the other day when I was unpacking—now as a resident tutor in charge of students who have already made it through their first year, and beyond—I came across it once again. If nothing else, it was a friendly reminder that I was once younger and (much) more naïve than I am today.

Of course, I now lose my keys quite a bit more, too.

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