On hazing

Andrew Schwartz, Feature Editor

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One crisp Seattle autumn morning my freshman year of high school, I awoke early so that two cool upperclassmen, who had claimed me, could throw me in Lake Washington before school. After school, I was shuttled with a freshman crew to the house of another cool upperclassmen, in whose backyard we did things like relay races where we conveyed marshmallows by ass-crack, and ‘grease the freshman,’ where my friend was oiled up and told to run around like the golden snitch and if we didn’t tackle him in two minutes we’d get paddled and if we did then his would be the booty-red. After a timed “ten-shot-challenge,” — vodka, beer, ketchup, cinnamon, etc. — we, in triumphant spirits, penises shaved about our freshman heads, sticky with flour and syrup, were taken to the homecoming keg under the long-abandoned 5-20 bridge off-ramp fragment, where a cacophonous rabble of hundreds of Garfield High School students swaggered about and formed boxing rings – peer pressured showdowns — and the freshman were disoriented and the crowd did roar…

That I regard the day as a formative one – friendships solidified, identify contextualized — is strange, and we will explore it with a thesis.

The thesis: it is evident that Whitman could use more cultural energy, chutzpah, stank, cheeeeeeese. I believe the missing vibrance can be enacted through explicitly ridiculous tradition, and I believe we should consider inventing some, and I believe that to get a sense of the structure of this kind of tradition, we might look to the structure, if not substance, of hazing.

Whitman culture, generally speaking, has little sensibility or time for the sort of tradition I’m talking about. The student body as a whole doesn’t care much about our sports, which is sad but fine but also notable, especially because nothing seriously and broadly fills that void. The only absurd campus-wide student tradition that I’m aware of is the naked run at the end of finals. Hyper-institutionalized traditions like commencement don’t count here, and neither do tradition’s subtler and more ubiquitous and potent forms. I’m talking playful grassroots traditions that brim with zeitgeist, like the hazing heretofore described, traditions ever-so-slightly renegade, fevered eruptions of the down-under. Can ‘pinging’ be described in this manner? No.

What am I really saying here? Initially, I told a few friends that I wanted to write an opinion column in defense of hazing would they offer their analysis? “That’s fucking stupid,” said one, whose older friend then instructed her to enter the washing machine.

The standard analysis. Probably generally right. Garfield’s particularly robust hazing tradition – that in reality was primarily carried forth by the mostly-white people in the magnet program (Garfield is historically quite black) – bursts with now-well-documented unpleasantries and impurities – some implicit: perverse racial dynamics, social exclusion, etc; some retrospectively obvious: it’s kind of weird, maybe, to paddle people (or shave penises — high schoolers will be high schoolers – into heads).

But the experience so holds because it genuinely articulated, in a humanly resonant way, a spirit, however retrospectively questionable, of a time and a place. Ironically but tellingly, what I perceived as a long and storied tradition was a passing cultural fancy, largely watered down even by the time of my own apotheosis as a senior. When I was handed the paddle, I demurred and ultimately declined to wield what I’d once believed to be my rightful inheritance. It felt… weird.

Hero!

Stupid to suggest my contemporaries and I were any different than the predecessors, but the world we inhabited when we reached equal stations certainly was. Something had changed. And to feel this change, in the air, in myself, was to understand precisely where we had come to in that space and moment. That the tradition was a farcical and ephemeral was precisely what allowed the tradition to serve as a reference point when its day was done.

I’m using a loaded word, often disgustingly and tragically misappropriated, in a particular way. At Whitman, we see tradition expressed — whether by hazing, champagne breakfasts, by voices of Whitman (vaguely institutional, but still sometimes delightful in a raw kind of way), the naked mile (itself the subject of contemporary and a response to old criticism — no longer, of course, the beer mile) — as a welcome-into-the-fold of the uninitiated by those who, however uncannily, find that they now wield authority, who have thus appropriated the “fold,” whatever it actually is, to the tune of the zeitgeist. We shouldn’t be uncomfortable with the generational hierarchy built-in, as I think we often tend to be; it is okay, and maybe even good for cultural vibrancy, if to be a senior confers 27 percent cool-factor (atop objective static cool-factor), at least in the starry eyes of the first-year, and if the cool-factor confers the authority by which to demonstrate or mandate good-natured absurdity.

I understand that this is heady terrain, and it obviously doesn’t ever justify being a dick, and that to assert this structure of passing down, of tradition from fore to the pro, must not even necessarily involve paddling or ass-marshmallow relay races, (though it certainly could!). As the naked mile demonstrates, hazing per se is not the only way to achieve tradition as virtuous absurdity, tradition as Bacchanalian carnival, tradition as yeasty living leaven to the cultural flour. Let us consider and enact ways to let it rise in caricature and farce, that what lies below may be revealed!

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