December 19, 2013
The Harvard campus in question. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole)
The Harvard campus in question. (Lisa Poole/Associated Press)

The bomb scare that evacuated several Harvard buildings on Monday and drew national attention turned out, according to an FBI affidavit, to be the work of a sophomore trying to avoid a final exam. According to the FBI affidavit, the suspect, Eldo Kim, “stated that he was in Emerson Hall at 9:00 a.m. when the fire alarm sounded and the building was evacuated. According to Kim, upon hearing the alarm, he knew that his plan had worked.”

On the surface, the headline is almost funny: Harvard student fakes bomb threat to get out of exam!

Almost. Now he faces a maximum penalty that could include up to five years behind bars.

“Students interviewed there said they were not surprised to hear that the suspect is a student, citing Harvard’s highly stressful environment,” concluded a Crimson article on the subject.

What a sad sentence that is.

In college, everything has the wrong consequences. Well, not quite. In college, a lot of things that should have consequences, mercifully, don’t. The night of stumbling inebriation when you could have done or suffered something awful — ends uneventfully. You go streaking in the winter and — nothing. Frequently, the worst penalty is an administrative penalty, where you can be exiled or expelled from school but nothing real happens. The most terrifying question is: will it go on my transcript?

Every so often you are reminded, in passing, that you are an adult. You vote, or get a jury summons. But mostly your world is within the gates. And you think: this is all that matters. And you start to think that nothing has consequences not because you are protected but because you are too clever or too quick or simply too “you” to be caught.

This story reminds me of the old campus legend that if your roommate dies traumatically enough, you’ll get a 4.0 GPA for the semester. (Oh, poor Jenn! But what about my transcript?) Of course there’s a legend like that.

It is exactly the kind of absurd myth you believe in a Stressful Environment when you think that These Things, These Things Right Here, These Exams and These Papers, and This Transcript (a largely meaningless document that you might have to mail to a few first employers, then never consult again) and This Club and These People, these are it, these are the only things that count.

But they aren’t. They don’t. They’re not worth this.

If only you could tell people that.

I don’t know the suspect or what went through his mind. I do know that panic on exam morning, the frantic prayer for snow or a deus ex machina to come squat on your shoulder and point out answers, because you’re YOU. How can you fail? What will you tell your Math League trophies back home?

Into almost every perfectionist’s life comes that moment — the moment when you have or haven’t studied and you know it’s not enough but you go in anyway and — it’s — not the end of the world, after all. I wish he’d gotten to know that moment instead of doing what he did. Or even gone to someone on campus and said, I need help.

But it’s so hard to tell at the time. The present is so inescapable and huge. And the future? It’s easy, from here, to say what people should have done. I am just far enough out of college that if I ran into myself from four years ago I would grab her by the shoulders and address stern remarks to her, and she would think I was some kind of weirdo. But I don’t know how you stop this from happening. That requires restoring things to their actual proportions, and that’s one of the hardest tricks there is.

Is there something you could say? All advice can be summed up as “what seems important to you now is not as important as it seems to be” — which is, perversely, the one piece of advice cannot successfully impart. “Do a lot of psychology studies, and you can make free money” is practical advice. “Don’t eat kumquats, they’re overrated,” might actually be followed. “Avoid the bathroom at the Au Bon Pain; it’s poorly lit and one time I found a stranger’s pregnancy test on the towel dispenser” — hey, someone might listen. It doesn’t require you to change your feelings.

But “This doesn’t matter. This thing, this thing right here, that means more to you than anything right now, it doesn’t actually matter, it’s not worth doing this” — no one ever believes that. The people who tell you this, you think, are trying to throw you off the path. But you won’t go off! You can actually do it! You are going to be the one exception to their rule! They don’t know you and all the things you’re capable of.

But they do. They were you.

And they are trying to say: these grades, these exams, these people are not worth wasting a chunk of your life over. All of this will pass. You, too.

If only he didn’t have to learn it like this.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.