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School Secrets: 5 things to know about Harvard

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 7, 2012 09:08 AM

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harvard university ariel shot.jpgBy Melissa Werthmann

A short T ride across the river from Boston proper, Harvard University was established in 1636, making it the oldest institution of higher education in the country. Named after John Harvard, one of the school’s first benefactors, the school has played an important role in America’s history since its early years. During the Revolutionary War, Harvard’s buildings housed soldiers; classes were relocated to Concord, Mass. In 1969, students took over University Hall, boycotting classes to protest U.S. foreign policy and the Vietnam War. And just a few months ago, Harvard Yard was closed to the public after Occupy Boston protesters tried to set up camp inside its gates.

But rich history isn’t the only thing Harvard has to offer. Here are some other things you might not know about Cambridge’s Ivy institution.

Harvard = Hogwarts? During spring semester, freshmen are sorted into one of 12 houses, just like in Harry Potter, though sans the talking wizard hat. Each Harvard house has its own residence hall, gym, dining hall, and common areas. Students can choose to be sorted with up to eight of their friends, alleviating the possibility that they’ll end up in a house with total strangers.

“It’s a really cool way to get a small-college feel in a large university,” said Billy Gorman, a junior studying government with a secondary in English and a member of Kirkland House (the same as Mark Zuckerberg). “It’s the biggest event of freshman year.”

But even before sorting, life is pretty Potter-like. Freshmen eat in the giant gothic structure that is Annenberg Hall, which “looks like the Great Hall from Harry Potter,” Gorman said.

Students scream stark naked. At the end of every semester, as the clock strikes midnight on the first day of finals, Harvard students strip down to their birthday suits and run laps around Harvard Yard, screaming as loud as they can to relieve that pre-exam tension (or just because it’s a funny and ridiculous thing to do).

“People who are really hardcore do it in the winter,” Gorman said. “I don’t know how anyone does it sober. I would say most don’t.”

Known as Primal Scream, the event is rumored to have begun with students simply opening their windows and screaming at midnight; now, it’s a rite of passage for every Crimson.

“[University administrators] haven’t stopped it yet,” said sophomore social studies major Patrick Leonard. “It’s kind of just ‘turn the other cheek.’”

Harvard and Yale fought before it was cool. As part of the oldest rivalry in the U.S., Harvard and Yale have played a total of 128 football games -- known simply as “The Game” -- against each other; Yale has 65 wins, but Harvard has won 10 of the past 11 meetings.

“Regardless of what our record is, if we beat Yale, the year is considered worth it,” Gorman said. “That football game is the closest we’ll ever get to a ‘BC-like’ football experience.”

In 2004, Yale students disguised as the “Harvard Pep Squad” handed out signs to the Crimson fans and told them that when raised, the cards would spell out “Go Harvard.” In fact, they spelled out “We Suck.” Harvard has yet to pull off a truly successful retaliation.

Trying to dig your way to China? Start in Widener Library. Widener Library’s 10 floors (four of which are underground) make it the second-largest library in the U.S., and a great place to see an awesome view or avoid sunlight altogether, depending on your preference.

“It’s really pretty on the inside,” said junior Patricia Mathelier of the building that’s named after Harry Elkins Widener, a 1907 graduate who died aboard the Titanic. Widener’s mother, Eleanor Elkins donated $3.5 million to the university to have a library constructed in her son’s name. The buzz around campus is that when Elkins donated the money, she did so with the stipulation that the library could never be altered -- which is why the builders had to go underground.

“Widener can’t be expanded,” Mathelier said. “They actually had to start building down.”

Another legend among the Crimson is that, in an effort to prevent deaths similar to that of her son, Elkins wanted all Harvard students to pass a swim test in order to graduate. That rule is no longer in effect.

john harvard statue.jpgVisitors worship a statue of lies. If you ever find yourself near Harvard, make sure to give its namesake’s statue’s foot, which stands in Harvard Yard, a little rub for good luck. A lot of Harvard hopefuls believe touching the statue will give them a better chance at getting into the competitive school, Mathelier said. But she also cautioned that the spot tourists place their hands on day after day is the same spot that students tend to pee on in a drunken stupor at night.

“People have put their babies on it,” she said. “I feel really bad.”

Even worse? The statue isn’t even John Harvard! It’s supposed to be, but no pictures of the benefactor exist, so the statue’s creator, Daniel Chester French, used a friend as his model for the 1884 masterpiece.

Harvard students, what do you think is the coolest thing about your school?

Interested in more 'School Secrets'? Find out what's weird and wacky about life at Northeastern, BU, and BC, and check back for fun facts about the rest of Boston's institutions of higher education.

Photos by Frederick Questier (top) and Chaval Brasil (bottom; Flickr)

About Melissa -- I'm a journalism student at Northeastern University, originally from New Jersey. I love hiking, kayaking, and cereal, and I am a vegetarian. I'm afraid of nothing, except butterflies. I love Disney movies, and I hope to one day meet Betty White.

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