This past week was Homecoming at the high school where I teach. My students who were sophomores when I first started are now seniors, and since the first week in September I’ve repeatedly heard from them, “I can’t believe this is my last [fill in the blank].” Some say it with great relief, others with great melancholy. Most feel both.
I confess I never understood the purpose of Homecoming as a high schooler. But I’ve grown sentimental in my middle-age. This week as I watched students dress up, dress down, act up, and break down, I’ve discovered why this week, which is frequently ridiculous and silly, is also a needed ritual. (You can read about my discovering the prom ritual here.)
A first-year teacher commented how the sociologist in him was intrigued to watch this week unfold. That made me wonder how future generations–anthropologists who will find our photos and artifacts–might view our rituals. For example, they may wonder what is the significance of dressing as each other.
Or dressing so that we look like a school for lumberjacks.
Would they discover that the cause of this flannel plaid wardrobe choice was in honor of the absent and beloved science teacher who’s currently battling cancer, and is why more than half the student body dressed as he does every day?
Surely future anthropologists will not understand Meme/Vine day, because I still don’t and I live in this time period.
As for crazy sock day—well, seeing our worship of designer shoes, they may conjure up some meaning there.
But the greatest ritual at our school takes place on Friday. No, it’s not the football game—although future researchers will understand that cultural significance with such ample data available. But they may not understand why we remain in the cold wind and rain, huddling on butt-freezing metal and whimpering, “Please, just let it end!”
No, the greatest ritual at our school is called “Field Day” although it takes place indoors away from all wet, cold fields because hey—Maine.
A variety of tasks, worthy of gladiators (or lumberjacks) and requiring great skill and bravery are set up in our gymnasium, pitting each of the four grades against each other in a melee of screaming and shouting amongst duct tape, giant marshmallows, raw eggs, sacrificed Ding-Dongs, stretched out pajamas and balloons . . .
and large ropes with gladiator trainees on either side pulling for their lives.
Not all these things occur at once, of course, although now that I’ve written that, I could see our intrepid associate head of school (or as I now think of him, Chief Gladiator Trainer) endeavor a way to combine it all into one massive challenge.
The events are intense and bizarre. In the past, Cheetos have been sacrificed for horrific displays of prowess and beard-ness (because hey–Maine). That ritual disturbed me greatly, for I love Cheetos, and four bags were rendered completely inedible, unless you also like the taste of shaving cream, which I don’t. (Please don’t ask how I know that.) Another past event required hundreds of balls and four competitors pretending to be “hippos” which are hungry. I’d love to see a future anthropologist puzzle out the meanings to those.
However, painting one’s face is common to the beginning of these rituals, as it has been for thousands of years among hundreds of cultures.
Dressing to identify with one’s group is also historically common, as is parading through a town together to demonstrate your position in society.
But will future anthropologists understand that these, below, are not really a king and queen? (And when I was helping to sash them, the king wanted the queen’s sash, and since he is the king, I started to obey and give it to him, which would have rendered his queen the new king. But then she insisted that she was the queen and wanted the queen sash. Because she was the king/queen, I had to give in. Some monarchies in history have collapsed faster than this.)
But why? Why such ritual?
Our Chief Gladiator Trainer says he wants to build “school spirit,” which I think is code for, This will carry you, folks. (He always says “folks,” our Chief Gladiator Trainer. I can’t write anything in his voice without “folks.”)
“You will remember these days when you screamed for each other, high-fived your buddies even when they failed, gloried when they succeeded, and vowed that next year you’ll defeat the others, together. Even if you’re apart. For years, you will remember these days.
“This will carry you, folks.”
But that’s not the end of Homecoming week, for there is a dance. The strangest ritualistic endeavor yet. Cultures have danced for thousands of years, for a variety of reasons–some rather heathenish.
That was the worry of my fellow chaperones–their first dance as new teachers. Just what are we watching for? After giving them a few ground rules (I chaperoned several dances last year), we watched them dim the lights to nearly nothing so that the Glow Dance could begin.
(Did they worship lightning bugs, future anthropologists may wonder, that they have black lights, white shirts, glowing tape on the floor, and glow sticks around their bodies? Yes, yes we do.)
I heard another one of my seniors lament, “Our last homecoming dance!” I smiled and thought, Unless you’re a teacher. My fellow chaperones discussed the music and what was trendy when they were in high school a mere ten years ago, and that’s when it hit me: aside from the Chief Gladiator Trainer who made the rounds every fifteen minutes, each of the four other chaperones were the same ages as my oldest children.
Even as I bopped a little to the music, which I didn’t understand, I realized that I’m 50–Wait, am I old?!
Yes, yes I am. I was even complaining about the music, but then again, the 27-year-olds, were also grumbling, “The stuff they’re playing these days!”
But our gladiators in training were beginning to bounce, to dance, to chant and scream the lyrics, and I grew nostalgic. My homecoming dances feel only five years ago, not over thirty. This may be their last homecoming dance, but it won’t fade from memory.
“This will carry you, folks.”
After commenting to a fellow chaperone, “What the heck are they playing?” I posted this on Facebook:
Noticing that one of the students acting as DJ liked my comment, I wrote him this from across the dance floor:
The very next song was the B-52’s “Rock Lobster.”
And there I sat, on the edge of the dance floor, with one of the greatest dance songs from the 1980’s playing.
And suddenly I thought, Folks, sometimes you get to go back to Homecoming.
Sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll find a group of kids who don’t care that you’re over-weight, over-age, and over-ridiculous. They’ll play you “Rock Lobster.”
What I did next couldn’t be helped.
I screamed, “NO!” (meaning “YES!” of course) and I rushed on to the dance floor, forgetting my chaperoning duties to make sure girls didn’t crowd the boys’ bathroom, and I danced.
Well, I call it dancing. What others may call it, I didn’t care. For thirty seconds I thought, You can still be an out-of-control 17-year-old, no matter your age!
Then for the next thirty seconds I thought, I hope my younger chaperones know how to work the defibrillator in the office. I may need it.
Because I was trapped. Once they saw me weirding out to “Rock Lobster,” the rest of the students circled around me and started chanting. What could I do? I had to keep going.
I had another thought: If I danced like this an hour a day, I’d be as skinny as them again.
Then I thought, If I dance like this for another five minutes, I’ll bust a hip.
I didn’t make it to the end of “Rock Lobster.” I gave up two minutes in, but still the kids were kind and cheered me.
As I strolled back to my post, exhausted and overheated and praying both hips would keep moving, I muttered to myself, “Yeah, you can go back again, guys. Don’t worry about this being your last Homecoming. That’s the whole point of Homecoming–doing it again. Coming home again. This will sustain you, folks. This will carry you.”
Thanks, WA students. You’re seriously the best place to come home to.
(Thanks to WA Development for letting me use some of their photos, and an extra big thanks to Ryan Conley, who told me to write this [“We need an epic post about Homecoming. I’m sending you photos to use.”] and who played for me “Rock Lobster.” You’re epic.)