Dorm Rules by
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Thayer Hall in Harvard Yard.

On the first night in our freshman dorm, after we’d all moved in, the “proctor” (RA) gathered us all in his room and explained the dorm rules. No drugs. No alcohol, even if we were over 21. (We weren’t.) No female visitors after 11 on weekdays or midnight on weekends. (These were called “parietal” hours.)

No drugs. No alcohol, even if we were over 21. (We weren't.) No female visitors after 11 on weekdays or midnight on weekends.

Then he passed around 6-packs of Bud.

And that’s how we learned that the dorm rules were to be honored more in the breach than in the observance.

But not all the rules. A few days after I was elected freshman council representative, the proctor knocked on my door. “I smell pot,” he said. I followed him into the hall. I had no idea what marijuana smelled like. To me, the hall just smelled like dorm. “Do something about it,” he said. “Otherwise I have to report it.” I knocked on the culprits’ door, wondering if they would invite me to take part. (They didn’t.) “Cool it,” I told them. They rolled their eyes but complied.

BudweiserI wasn’t a prude, so let’s just say I led a sheltered childhood. My parents had allowed me a half glass of wine with dinner—in Jewish households, it’s part of the Shabbat ritual—but I had never been drunk. I had never smoked pot, let alone tried harder drugs. I had dated and fooled around with my high school girlfriends, but I was still a virgin. That would be unusual now, but it was common, even the norm, in my middle-class, Midwestern, suburban high school in the ’60s.

Which is why it freaked me out, about a month into freshman year, the first time two of my dormmates had women stay overnight. And not their high school girlfriends, either; these were young local women—Townies, we called them—they’d picked up at a mixer or in the Square. They burst into our entry, laughing and tipsy, the women hanging on their arms, and disappeared into their rooms. Clint’s room was right below mine, and I could hear their laughter into the night (though fortunately no sounds of sex, from which I might not have recovered). Even so, it shook my world. I lay in bed, unable to sleep, understanding that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, contemplating the fact that people like me were comfortable breaking, bending, or ignoring rules that I thought were ironclad.

One rule that remained in force was that a jacket and tie were required at lunch and dinner in the Freshman Union dining hall. Classmates were actually turned away from meals without the requisite attire. Since most of us went straight from class to lunch, and from lunch to another class, this meant that most of us wore jackets and ties to class as well. I didn’t actually mind this rule, since it made college feel, well, collegiate. Wasn’t this why we attended an Ivy League college in the first place?

By sophomore year, the rules were still in place, but enforcement was relaxed. You really had to flout the rules to get reported—which my friend Andy did, by growing marijuana in his dorm window. He was actually arrested, the only drug arrest in my four-year college career. Meanwhile, enough students went to the dining halls in casual dress that the jacket and tie rule was abolished. And parietals were virtually ignored. Even I felt comfortable having my girlfriend stay overnight.

The next year they integrated the dorms—women moved to Harvard, men to Radcliffe—and any pretense of decorum disappeared. My senior year, I finally scored a single room—and went out and bought a second-hand double bed so my girlfriend could stay over in relative comfort. But by then it was the ’70s, and the only rule was to break all the rules.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, well written


  1. brought back dorm life memories. nice.

  2. David Rock says:

    This story had a well developed introspective sense to it, and we could observe the author grow and mature as the story progresses.

  3. I love it that Andy flouted the rules by growing weed in his dorm room window. Wonder where Andy is now.

    I can relate to a feeling of shock about what older people were doing that I wasn’t used to — I wasn’t innocent in college, but at about 14 I was pretty nervous around people smoking pot. Too bad I felt I had to hide my surprise and lose my innocence.

  4. John Zussman says:

    Gillian, thanks for your comment. I can answer your question, since Harvard encourages its alumni to file an update every five years. Andy became a Moonie and is a religious teacher and scholar at the Unification Theological Seminary in New York.

  5. Suzy says:

    I remember reading this story many months ago, and I’m surprised to see I didn’t comment. Guess that was when I first joined Retrospect and wasn’t commenting on everything. This is a great memory of starting college at Harvard, and so dramatically different from starting college at Radcliffe that it takes my breath away. Thanks!

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    It is interesting how much dorm life changed between 1968 and 1970. We heard about parietals on our first night of school, but the only rule was “rule 22” – be discreet! I wasn’t at an Ivy, but the thought of wearing proper attire was unthinkable! We wore grunge before it had a designation as such. I was mocked because I never gave up my mascara. Interesting look back at a particular pivot point in time.

  7. bateginger says:

    Love this. After reading it, I’ve been thinking about my first year, 1965-66 in a tiny college in Tennessee. Stricter rules, and they were enforced, but could be gotten around. The senior girls next door to my freshman room, left a basement window open for their boyfriends. When the honor court called dorm drinkers in for questions, the wildest women in my dorm came to pay a visit to me and my roommate. She assumed no one would think of looking for her in our room. No one did. We were entertained by her squirming and sweating. Neither she nor we pretended her visit was social. After a couple of hours that evening, she left. She did not speak to either of us again.

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