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Thursday, March 5, 2015

American Educational Rituals

Like most Americans, when I started my freshman year at university I was required to show up on campus and move into my dorm a week before classes actually started.  The reason for this was so that I could participate in "Freshman Orientation," a week of activties and informaional meetings designed to prepare all of us fragile, wide-eyed, anxious 18 year-olds for the stresses, emotional and academic, of our first year of college.  This well-meaning attempt to make smoother our transition from teenager to "adult" had a social component as well; you attended all of the orientation events with the same group of twenty or so people.  I believe the reasoning is that if you force people to "untangle" themselves from a human knot, sit through a lecture covering both add-drop procedures and the dangers of STDs and then eat ice cream together enough times, they somehow form some bond.  I think this must be a Piaget theory.

I dutifully showed up on time to everyday's activities, quietly tiptoeing out of my muggy dorm-room so as not to wake my heavily slumbering roommate who, I believe had no idea anyone outside of her door was up to anything whatsoever that week or any following week in the whole year we roomed together.  I understand the university's rationale behind this semi-forced socialization.  Students engaged in "fun" activities with each other make friends faster and presumably have an easier time coping with homesickness or the shock of a large university course load.  These happy students, with their little communities around them, would stay in school and not transfer to one closer to home or drop out altogether.  About 30% of the people in my orientation group transferred before the end of the semester.  I never ran into the others. 
 
I was telling David the other day about one of the only events I can actually recall from that week.  (Besides a cruise on the…Hudson?  East River? )I don’t remember why anymore, but each group of freshmen was supposed to come up with a little sketch to perform in front of the other groups.  One of the first girls to stand up and loudly take charge of the whole sketch production for my group, was a cute blond girl who I was convinced was much older and wiser than the rest of us.  I think she might have been 21 or 22.  During Get-to-Know-You-Time she frequently hinted at personal tragedy, loss, complicated sexual preferences, and a dark inability to commit to one major.  She was headed towards a bright future as a singer, I think, before tragedy struck and she had a “Save the Last Dance kind of moment” (her words) and had to rethink her ambitions.  So, naturally she ended up at a tiny university on Long Island to study drama.  Already her reference to the hit blockbuster of that summer, which I saw in theaters, dates me. 

I don’t remember our finished sketch at all, only that it includes two other references that will further date me.  Both were allusions to television commercials which were so well-known and popular, the entire hall of freshmen exploded in a roar of laughter during our sketch.  Blond Girl, at one point, enacted part of a very popular shampoo commercial.  But our grand finale was a partial rendition of a late-night infomercial featuring a certain West-African medium, which everyone knew very well. Her television campaign included commercials which gradually became longer and longer until it almost seemed like she had a television show.  She would dish out brittle, scathing advice to the love-lorn buffoons who had chased their women away, or warm encouragement to the single moms struggling with money.  That orientation week you could frequently hear people up and down the hall quoting lines from her television ad, in her lilting, chiming voice.  I’m certain her popularity was due not to her accuracy of predictions or even the sagacity of her advice, but to her entertaining and engaging TV commercials.

(I stand corrected.  I did remain a casual acquaintance with the girl who played the medium in our sketch.  Blond Girl I never saw again. )  

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