LABOR DAY week: So begins the annual migration of college students to the New England area. Last year, entering Harvard as a freshman, I didn't know what to expect. I imagined a campus teeming with students who recited the first 30 digits of ''pi" to themselves as they strode through the Yard, and I expected my roommate to have been a finalist by the age of 9 in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. As soon as I arrived on campus, I discovered that my image of Harvard was completely wrong: Students muttered the first 30 digits of ''e" to themselves, and my roommate managed to lock himself out of our room twice within the first 20 minutes.
Thus began my year as a ''Frosh," a year in which I sought to find some relief from the burden of ''potential" that I overheard my parents talking about as I played Super Mario. My plans to fit seamlessly in with the college crowd did not go exactly as planned. It appeared that the only way to impress my fellow students let alone faculty was to have discovered a subatomic particle, developed a feasible solution to the national deficit, or been sued by Apple. In the hallway of one dorm, I saw one of my classmates showing off her gold medal from the Summer Olympics in Athens. I quickly pulled a sweatshirt over my ''Number 1 Grandson" T-shirt.
My struggle to adjust extended to the classroom. When I signed up for my calculus course at the beginning of the year, I was unaware that the professor had a propensity to schedule tests during World Series clinching games for the Red Sox. So at 8:05 on Oct. 27, 2004, instead of watching Johnny Damon's lead-off homerun against the Cardinals, I was figuring out the rate of change in volume of a pig trough being filled with water. My professor was kind enough to update us on the game on the blackboard. However, he did so in such a way that, in order to figure out the score, one had to solve a differential equation and have at least partial knowledge of Newton's Law of Cooling.
I was sure that at least sports would provide a few constants with my high school experience. I figured that I would strap on a football helmet, run full speed into some other guys, lift a lot of weights, and try to impress the girls with my athletic prowess, just like old times. But alas, I was introduced to hours of the day I never knew existed in high school, like the period between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. I found myself waking up for football practice at the same time my roommate was finishing up his final round of Internet poker and going to bed.
Just when college life seemed so overwhelming that I wondered if I would be better off growing a beard and moving to a cabin deep in the forest, I got a sign that I was, indeed, going to survive freshmen year. About a month into my first semester I ventured down to the laundry room to wash my clothes for the first time (sorry, Mom). A nerve-racking two hours later, I began unloading the dryer and everything seemed to have gone smoothly. My pride was soon crushed, however, as I pulled out what I thought was a pair of my boxers that was actually my favorite red sweater. As I held it up in disbelief, I caught the eye of one of my classmates at the other end of the laundry room whom I recognized from one of my classes as the guy rumored to have come up with his own solution to Fermat's Last Theorem. He too was holding a shrunken sweater.
It was then that I realized that behind all these brilliant, intimidating minds there were confused, overwhelmed teenagers. As my year progressed I noticed more and more instances of fallacy, immaturity, and irresponsibility. Whether your cellphone rings to the tune of ''Inspector Gadget" while you are making a class presentation or you get a concussion from sledding off the roof of the library on a tray you pinched from the dining hall, all college students are connected by this struggle to simultaneously grow up and stay a kid. No matter where you go to school, no matter how successful the people around you seem, everyone is overwhelmed by this ''transitional period" of life that goes by its more common name: college.
So to all of you incoming freshmen: remember that you are never alone in your stress. Behind every seemingly confident student who has it all together, there is someone who doesn't know when to use cold, warm, or hot water.
Eric Kester is a sophomore at Harvard.