MH is a third-generation Irish-American originally from Battle Creek, MI, who relocated to Santa Barbara, CA in high school.
MH had a tough adjustment period when he moved out West:
“My sophomore year our family left the Midwest and moved to Santa Barbara, and my brothers and I had to start a new high school in the middle of the year…I wasn’t bullied or anything, but there was a period where the other kids were a little confused by me, I think. I was on the basketball team, and one day at practice the balls kept rolling out the door and into the hallway, so my coach told me to go close them. These guys were standing in the doorway, this one guy, Rich Cooke, who was on the football team. I guess he knew who I was, because when I told them I needed to close the doors he yelled something at me like, ‘you think you’re so much better in your turtlenecks,’ something dumb like that to make fun of how I dressed. So I pushed him out into the hallway, beat him up, closed the door and walked back into the gym like nothing had happened. And I stopped wearing turtlenecks after that.”
This story shows how material things, like clothes or cars, can help facilitate folk culture for certain groups whether they like it or not. In MH’s case, his preppier wardrobe communicated a stuffiness or snobbish attitude to his new classmates in Southern California, who were wearing more boardshorts than club attire. Unfortunately for Rich Cooke, stereotyping and playing into those folk beliefs isn’t always an effective way to understand someone from another “culture.” And at a time when teenagers are very focused on their identity, he may have felt threatened by MH’s ability to integrate into the school’s culture (besides his clothes), even as an outsider.
JH is a senior at a all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives with his parents in Pasadena, CA.
JH sat down to talk with me about a ritual he and his friends began practicing as early as middle school – taking the train to Chinatown in downtown LA after school.
“Some of my friends started going in eighth grade…our middle school was really close to a Metro station, and we could just say we were walking to my friend N’s house and just go there instead. Tickets were only like $1.50 each way and it only takes like, 15 minutes to get there. I only went once though I think…and we just walked around and looked at stuff, they had those little turtles and firecrackers and shit, I don’t even know if anyone bought anything.
“I went more with friends in high school though, like freshman and sophomore year a bit. We could still take the Metro after school and just told our parents we were staying after school to do homework in the library or had a club meeting or something. My friends would also buy cigarettes at these little smoke shops there, and there was like, always one that kept getting shut down or they kept changing the name…it would pretty much be a different woman every time, like ‘Kim’s’ or ‘Annie’s’ or something. And they wouldn’t ask for your ID or anything, my friends would just like buy whatever their friends bought, like red Marlboros or American Spirits and stuff. They had pieces too [for smoking weed] and bongs, so sometimes my friends would get the cheap glass pipes, they were like $10 each or something. I know some people would go through the markets where they had clothes and knock-off jade stuff, and there was this one little stall hidden behind clothes that sold a whole bunch of weapons. We mostly just went and looked but some people bought things, like ninja stars or big knives…people said these guys supplied the Chinese mafia, or something. One time someone said they saw a warhead…like the kind of thing you put on top of a missile. For awhile one of my friends had like a plywood board in his garage, and we’d take turns throwing the ninja stars at it.”
I asked JH why he thought Chinatown was so popular for younger high school kids, and what it said about their youth culture:
“I don’t know…I don’t know when they built the Metro, but I guess it was probably pretty new. And in like 8th grade, beginning of high school, no one can drive, but you kind of want to start going out and exploring…beyond Pasadena, outside of just your neighborhood and school and stuff. And then the Metro only really has a few stops that aren’t in totally random places, like yeah you could get on different lines and go to Hollywood and stuff but we only had a couple hours after school and going too far was probably too…intimidating or scary when we were only like, 14. And then obviously older kids were doing it and that’s where they were getting dumb things like cigarettes that they had at parties, and I guess we just wanted to see what they were getting into, and it just seemed really cool going to a kind of sketchy place and knowing we were breaking all these rules. Probably just like, typical teenage rebellion, sneaking behind your parents’ backs before we could drive and really start getting into trouble. Plus, in Pasadena I think we all know we’re super sheltered in this really well-off community, and everyone’s had pretty comfortable and safe lives…which I guess adds to the danger part.”
I think this type of ritual is typical among teenagers, especially younger ones, who are just starting to become independent and want to push the boundaries their parents have set so far. The ages of 13-16, 17 really define the liminal period in American culture, when kids start to feel more self-sufficient but aren’t ready to take on all the responsibilities of adulthood; parents struggle with the transition too, knowing they should start preparing older children to take care of themselves, without wanting to kick them out of the nest so fast. Kids toeing the line, and learning to take advantage of their parents is nothing new, and here we see them trying to navigate the larger (and more adult) world using public transportation, coming into contact with drugs and drug paraphernalia, and doing so with an air of secrecy and defiance.
Additionally, it starts to separate “cool” or “mature” kids from those who are happy to obey authority, and some feel pressured to challenge their parents instead of their peers. Sneaking out and experimenting with illicit activities (drinking, drugs, sex, etc.) is a large part of the American high school experience, and this ritual demonstrates one foray into that world.
JH is a senior at an all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives with his parents in Pasadena, CA.
JH talked to me about some of the traditions and rituals that surround New Year’s and New Year’s Eve in his hometown:
“New Years is probably the biggest event in Pasadena…first of all there’s the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game…for the Rose Parade you always know it’s coming because in like, late November they start putting up the grandstands down Orange Grove [a major boulevard], and I live right above the Rose Bowl so they start setting up for events around then too in the neighborhood. They put up these giant white tents down there where they start building some of the floats, and you can go down and help decorate them with flowers – I’ve never gone, but I know some people or their families go every year. The floats are really cool.
There’s also the Rose Court and they’re a big part of the Rose Parade. My sister tried out a few years ago. I think in like September, or really early in the school year, all the girls who are seniors can try out, and they go to this really big mansion called the Tournament House and have a bunch of rounds of interviews. Obviously like, not all the girls are really interested in being on the Court, but it’s just a tradition they all do together. Everyone who participates I know also gets two tickets to this ‘Royal Ball,’ which is basically just a huge dance they have. That’s why a lot of girls do it I guess, just to get the tickets. But I don’t know, maybe it’s also just fun for them to participate. And then they eventually pick like six or seven girls, and one of them is the Queen, and they spend the rest of the year doing charity work and being like, the representatives of Pasadena, and then on New Years they have their own float and they kind of “preside” over the Rose Bowl game later that day.
A lot of my friends don’t really go to the actual parade though…it’s the kind of thing you go to a few times when you’re little and your parents want to take you and it’s exciting – they have free donuts under the grandstands, and hot chocolate – but once you’re like, 10 everyone’s pretty over it. And then when you’re older, the best part about New Years is New Years Eve. The night before, everyone usually gets dressed up, not fancy or anything but girls wear dresses and heels sometimes, and even though it’s freezing outside, like less than 50 degrees at night, everyone goes to parties near the Parade Route. They bring some of the floats onto the street the night before and block it off to cars, to everyone’s just walking up and down Orange Grove looking at floats and hanging out with their friends, there’s some people camped out for the parade on the side, and kids are going back and forth between other people’s parties. It’s really funny because everyone is drinking too. Besides the kids, you see a lot of cops and a lot of people’s parents just really really drunk on the street, and everyone’s just having a good time…if you lived off of Orange Grove you would feel kind of obligated to have a party or open your house up. And then everyone would obviously like count down to midnight together and all that, and then you’d usually crash at someone’s house and wake up the next morning and watch the parade on TV, if you wanted to, or just walk up to the parade route and see it from there. But after awhile no one really got tickets to see the parade. But if you were really lucky, you got tickets to the Rose Bowl game, which was always a big deal. My friends and I really like football, and usually someone’s dad knows someone who can get us tickets, so we try to go whenever we can.”
I asked JH if he thought his experience with this festival was unique, as someone who lived in the community and had people coming from all over to vacation in his hometown:
“Yeah, it was definitely different. Growing up with this happening every year, a lot of it just got kind of annoying, especially living right next to the Rose Bowl and having streets blocked off and so much traffic that entire week before New Years. There’d be a lot of football fans from the Midwest of whatever Big-10 school that was playing, or Stanford people coming down from the Bay for the week, and there’d be just a bunch of people and a bunch of cars all over Pasadena during the end of winter break, a lot of people who didn’t know where they were going. I guess Pasadena isn’t usually a tourist destination until New Years, so it’s weird all of a sudden having a bunch of strangers in your hometown…like Pasadena isn’t small, it doesn’t feel like a small town where everyone knows each other, but you can clearly tell if someone is visiting or someone lives here. And yeah, the Rose Parade gets old after awhile, but I think everyone who lives here would still say it’s one of their favorite holidays.”
Its very different to visit a festival annually and to live in a community where an annual festival takes place – after awhile, the nostalgia and excitement is buffered by some of the logistical nightmares and fatigue that JH describes above. Pasadena New Year’s and New Year’s Eve definitely has similar traditions as other places, like counting down to midnight and getting together with friends and family. The Rose Parade also has elements of other festivals, like floats and a “court” of young women. JH gets to see community involvement a tourist doesn’t, like the selection of Rose Princesses or the decoration of floats that requires residents’ participation and support. This ritual is a great example of welcoming the new year by bringing a community together, while continuing customs that now have come to define Pasadena.
For more information about this festival, see:
“About the Rose Parade.” Tournament of Roses. Tournament of Roses, 18 Feb. 2016. Retrieved from https://www.tournamentofroses.com/rose-parade.
AA is an 18 year old high school senior. She is a member of her school’s show choir group, a performance ensemble that incorporates elements of musical theater and choir. She often goes to competitions with her team. Here she describes a pre-show practice for good luck that is deeply significant to her:
“So for show choir- our team is not very good. We’re not known as the high school that wins every competition or has elaborate dance routines or great costumes. A lot of it is because we’re so underfunded. But one thing we are really good at is teamwork.
So, before every show, the whole group will gather backstage, including the choir director and the choreographer. We all get together in a big circle and we hold each other’s hands, and then we pass a squeeze around the group to each person. Basically it symbolizes that everyone is involved, everyone’s talents are appreciated, and we’re all in this together. There’s this great sense of unity, and whatever happens, happens, that’s fine- we’re here for each other.”
I think it started as a way of calming everyone’s nerves before a big competition, but we always make sure to do it for good luck too. We never go onstage without doing this first because otherwise we might not perform as well as we could.”
Do you know who started this, or how long ago?
“I think it’s been around in our school’s show choir for a very long time. I know our choir president has been doing it all four years, and that the previous president- before any of us were even freshmen- did it too. So it’s been around for a while.”
Do you know about any other teams or schools that do this?
“I think it’s just us, at least in show choir. Only people in our show choir, in this group, know about this. When we go to competitions, we notice that each team has their own thing that they do- we notice it too. Like we saw one group put their heads together and go “caw caw!” and flap their arms or something like that- there are some weird ones! They’re all very different. But no matter how weird it may look to us, it’s special to them. It’s comforting. It’s kind of a way to relieve your stage fright and whether or not it actually gives us good luck, it’s good to have some peace of mind when you’re going onstage.”
My thoughts: Pre-show rituals for good luck are often a great way to make a group feel closer to one another- they denote you as an official member of that group. The informant mentions that each team has their own unique ritual that brands them as belonging to a specific school. I think this ritual also ties into the anxieties many high schoolers feel regarding their identities- they are often looking for a group to belong to. Also, the ritual helps to dispell any stage fright the performers might have, so it doesn’t matter as much whether it actually grants good luck or not because it’s a reassuring gesture either way.
The informant, a 20-year-old college student, attended a private Ivy League Preparatory school in New York, the Hackley School, for grades 6-12. While I was out to lunch between classes with the informant, I asked if she could tell me about her school’s history, and if there were any traditions or narratives related to this history that all of the students know about.
“Well, Hackley is named after the woman who founded it over a century ago, Miss Hackley. Everyone thinks of her as this old, gray-haired, witch-like woman. Deep in the library there are a lot of old books and paintings. The story goes that in this one really old painting of the school, there was a shadowy figure towards the back for as long as anyone could remember. Then, a few years ago, the figure disappeared. So supposedly that was Miss Hackley, and she moves in and out of pictures and paintings throughout the campus watching the students’ every move and making sure that nobody is acting out or being disrespectful.”
This legend regarding the founder of the informant’s school is a way to keep the institution’s history alive by implying that the school’s long-dead founder is still very much aware of whether the students are being respectful and behaving appropriately. The informant said that while she does not believe that Miss Hackley’s spirit inhabits the school, thinking about the possibility still creeps her out. This legend functions to keep the students at Hackley School in line by providing an ultimatum that, while perhaps not entirely threatening, would make a student think twice before sneaking off into empty classrooms or cutting class: if you fail to obey the school’s code of conduct you are disrespecting Miss Hackley, and if she knows of these the potential for her to discipline you exists. The legend is not dependent on students believing that Miss Hackley’s spirit actually inhabits the school, but rather on the slightest bit of doubt that it possibly could. I think that the nature of the institution, as an old, elite private school on the east coast, allows the legend to operate much more effectively than it would at, say, a relatively new public school on the west coast, due to the fact that the older school as a more extensive, and unknown, history that a newer school would lack.
“So in Norway, when we graduate high school, we have this tradition that the two weeks leading up to our, um, independence day, um, we essentially do college in two weeks. And by that we, uh, everyone essentially has like a startup company where they fund, they get money and they work and they buy a bus. And this bus is to represent a group of people that have together to party on this bus for these two coming weeks. You build this bus to represent you as a group. So you paint it, you have your own song. They usually spend about twenty to forty thousand dollars on these buses. And they pay a couple to three thousand dollars per song or more. People live off this shit. They graduate high school and they just make music for these crazy graduating students. And they have a pretty decent life. Umm, so what you do is you do this and then you buy a suit, you buy like overalls that are completely red and covered in the Norwegian flag, and it’s got different colors. That’s the only time that you’ll ever see these colors in Norway which is why I find it so baffling that people in America keep wearing and wearing their flag everywhere. I guess it’s like weird, it’s like nationalism, which is bad, but for these two weeks in Norway: totally cool. So everyone gets drunk, everyone has sex with each other, there’s a bunch of STD things going on and like a lot of people take precautions so there’s just condoms everywhere in the capital for those two weeks, literally just so that teenagers can just grab them passing by. They’ll be in like metro stations, bus stops, random places there’ll just be like a little cup of condoms because people are just like doing things all the time. So there’s a lot of drugs, a lot of drinking, and you kinda like, you do all of those, you get all your immaturity out. That’s the whole point of it. So by the time you have your independence day, everyone’s so fucking exhausted that when you actually celebrate the day that you celebrate Independence Day and that you celebrate your graduation, then finals happen. Afterwards. So it’s a big thing in Norway where people have been trying to get the finals to happen before these two weeks. Because what happens is a lot of, like, not a lot, but maybe one out of twenty people failed their finals because of this tradition. Every year. So they’re trying to change that now. I think it’s going to change this year, but the fact that the government, that all entire Norway works around this insane tradition: just get fucked up and have sex for two weeks? It’s fucking fantastic.”
The source definitely looked upon this tradition with a lot of happiness. It seemed to be one of his favorite parts of high school. He said it’s not a very long-standing tradition, but that it’s definitely been around as long as he’s been alive. He says it’s a way for them to release all the pent up stress from the year. It allows them to let loose and do crazy things that, under other circumstances, wouldn’t be allowed.
This tradition seems to come with its own sort of hall pass. It sounds like the kind of thing that these kids would never get away with if only there weren’t so many of them participating in it. That’s probably how it came about in the first place. Some group of kids wanted to let loose, but they knew they’d get in trouble, so they got a whole bunch of people together and went nuts. It probably didn’t fly as much back when it started, but now that it’s mainstream, the whole country probably knows to expect this debauchery and just lets it slide.
What also makes it interesting is that it involves a lot of responsibility. It’s almost like a rite of passage, really, because these kids have to work and save up money in order to be able to afford this massive, two-week rager. They also need to plan and organize it all themselves. Basically, they’re doing very adult things in order to be able to do some very not adult things. Quite the contrast.
Information on the Informant: The informant, Charlie Maloney, is currently a sophomore at USC studying engineering. He is 2o years old and is from Northern California. He attended De la Salle high school in Concord, California which is an all boys christian school. While there, he played rugby and was actively involved in activities on campus. Additionally, he is apart of a fraternity on campus. After attending an all boys school and being a part of a fraternity, Charlie really values the idea of brotherhood.
Informant: “When I was a senior at De la Salle, it was customary that all of us seniors sat at the same spot any time for lunch or a break. My friend group was filled with athletes and it was pretty clear that we were respected by a lot of people within the school. On a few occasions, we found that there were younger kids sitting in our spot. They would always move when we told them simply because they knew that we were older than them and that we sat there every day. However, on one occasion, they refused to move and we started yelling at them. The dean of men (a very authoritative and scary figure) came over and actually started yelling at the sophomores to get out of our spot as opposed to yelling at us for getting mad at the younger kids. Obviously they moved and we got our spot back.”
Analysis: This particular folklore of claiming a piece of land or spot because of seniority hits home for me simply because I also attended an all boys school and faced the same issue on some occasions. In a typical brotherhood it is customary that those who are older or have had more experience within the brotherhood get priority over things. In this case it was a table for lunch at a high school.
Original Script: “Okay, so when I moved to Milford, Pennsylvania, I didn’t know anyone! Besides mom and Chuck, and we all know just how fun that could be. Anyways, I had been going to DV for a couple of months and had made some really awesome friends. But they told me about this legend at the school, how this one kid died from a seizure in the hallways and you can hear locker slams, and water dripping in the hallway at night (apparently he was on the swim team). But it was weird because apparently he had epilepsy, but the school didn’t know about it…I don’t know the whole story doesn’t make sense. But I really wanted to see if the legend was true because I’m really into that stuff and also a lot of people have heard the ghost at the school. Anyways, because I was swim team manager, I had a key to the school for early morning practices. But of course, my friends and I thought it was a good idea to go at night to see if it was true. So I told mom that I was sleeping over at my friend, Jess’s, house. And Jess told her mom the same. So we met up with our other friends outside the school, I honestly have no idea how they were able to sneak out…but apparently they do it all the time. Anyways, we used my key to get into the school, we weren’t worried about cameras or anything because that school is so cheap, we live in the middle of nowhere! Trust me, they are not too worried about security. But, we walked into the school, me, Jess, Katie, our friend Nate and Josh.
First of all, it was already creepy to begin with. I mean the school is old! So it gives off creep vibes. In the first fifteen minutes, there was nothing and we started getting board wandering up and down the halls. But, in the next few minutes. I have never been so terrified in my life. We were at the really old part of the school. A part that hasn’t been rebuilt in such a long time, and all of a sudden we heard dripping, and almost if wet people were hitting the tile, then we heard lockers slam shut! Safe enough to stay, we didn’t stick around longer than that. We ran out of the school and Jess drove me back to my house. I stuck up into my room and barley slept that night and when I came down the next morning, mom was surprised to see me out of bed! She asked what I was doing home so early and I told her it was because of swim team practice this morning! Hahaha, it was really funny because when I got to the school, I totally forgot that we didn’t lock the door behind us! So, I definitely thought we were going to get caught. But, when I walked up to the Swim team supervisor, she looked me down and was like, ‘Jenna…when I got to the school the door was open!’ I knew I had been caught, but then she said, ‘I guess Noah forgot to close up after afternoon practice yesterday, so I guess you are the only one with the key now!’ I was trying so hard not to laugh as Noah kept protesting that he didn’t forget! I never said anything after that, and now I will literally be late to all my classes because I refuse to walk through the old part of the school again!”
Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Jenna grew up in Chandler, Arizona with her family. About two years ago, she moved across country with her mother and now lives in Milford, Pennsylvania. Jenna loves stuff about ghosts, and she is always willing to see if the legends are true. She has gone on a many legend quests but have yet to hold them true until this one. She is now a senior in high school and eighteen years old and plans to go to California in the fall.
Context of the Performance: Sneaking into a school at night
Thoughts about the piece: This interviewee happened to be my younger sister, whom I am very close with. She had told me the story the day after it happened. Though, I interviewed her again because I thought it would be perfect to that of a category of a legend quest. This story, as seemingly innocence as it was, speaks volumes in relative terms to Jenna’s belief system. Jenna has always been interested in the supernatural, but has never experienced anything that has seemed to be true. (I conducted an interview with her based off of the legend of Bloody Mary, she tried the ritual and nothing had happened that was seemingly supernatural, please see that article for reference). However, this being the first, “supernatural,” thing Jenna has experienced, gives this story a specific edge.
Firstly, this story does fall under the category of a “legend quest” because it is a quest of a high school student to see if the legend of the ghost at Desert Valley High School is true. Furthermore, the ghost story adheres to the category of a legend, something that can (or has) happened in the real world. Secondly, the fact that this legend scared Jenna, that there was happenings of the unknown (i.e. the watery footsteps, the slamming lockers, etc.), signifies that this story held some significance to it. It might have been the social environment Jenna was in. For example, the fact that everyone believed in the legend or it could have been because of the building Jenna and her friends were in was an old building—it could even have been a combination of the two. Thus, it is interesting that this legend quest can also transform into a memorate. In a follow up with Jenna, she had told me that she had shared the story with her other friends that week—friends that believe in the legend as well—and her friends approved that it must have been the ghost of the boy.
Interestingly, this legend quest can also fit into the category of inanition into a group of sorts. Jenna was new at her school, she had mentioned in the story that “everybody” has heard the ghost, and she might of wanted to fit into the new social environment. So, experiencing such a legend quest with a group of friends already part of the Delaware Valley High School, made Jenna ‘fit in’ more with the group, it initiated her as part of the Delaware Valley High School students.
The ritual: “My high school’s cross-country team…our sectionals which was like the last meet of the year, cause we always lose sectionals…it’s always at the same place, it’s at this elementary school in Noblesville. And we would go there and there’s like this random path into the woods, and all the guys on the team would go there together, and we would take one lollipop and everyone had to kiss the lollipop and it was super weird.”
The informant carried out this ritual for his high school cross-country team. He said that one guy on the team never did it because he thought it was too weird, probably because he thought it was too close to kissing other guys. This ritual was probably more ironic than for good luck, since the informant himself said that the team lost sectionals every year. Going in knowing that they’ll lose, the ritual for “good luck” was probably just a parody, since the ritual itself is kind of weird to begin with.
“M” is 21 year old male student at the University of Southern California, where he is a Junior studying Animation and minoring in Philosophy. M is originally from the outskirts of New York state where he describes himself as living in a rural area. He described himself as going to a high school of ~60 students, where cliche formation was rare as students could ‘jump from social group to social group’. He describes his parents as ‘hippies’ that were very relaxed in their parenting style as well as their personal approach towards life. He is of Irish descent on both sides and describes this aspect of his life as very active in his life.
“M: There was this kid my friend heard about, he would pretend to carry a lizard around and show people his lizard. Um… but obviously his hand’s empty so no one can actually see this… lizard. Most people that knew him were like, alright, here’s this lizard, just say hi… than like fuck off man
He met a new guy once who had no idea about the imaginary hand-lizard. So he held out his hand, and looked at him [the man who was ignorant of the lizard] and the guy gave him a high five.
Me: (start laughing, ends up interrupting his talking)
M: From that day on, the kid just talked and didn’t have a lizard… the lizard died and he became a normal human being.
Me: How did you hear about this?
M: From a kid in high school, he said it was one of his friends.
Me: Do you think it’s real?
M: No way, someone like that can’t really exist haha.”
The appeal of the legendary figure above appears to be the absurdity of the original gesture, introducing an imaginary lizard to people who obviously knew it was no real. This contrasts sharply as well with his apparent transformation into normalcy upon having his imaginary lizard killed by an ignorant stranger. Though the contrast itself isn’t interesting, the further claim that this may have been an actual person makes the situation peculiar and something that peaks interest. It seems to contradict our basic assumptions about how a person normally acts, and acts as a source of speculation (could he have been joking, suffering from mental illness, was the story made up?).
Some further aspects that make the legend fascinating is the apparent non-reaction of the lizard carrying man to having his lizard killed, despite the massive time investment in keeping the gesture going. It’s an abnormal reaction for someone who sees a pet killed, but not for someone who may have been joking. At the same time, why would he invest so much time into something he did not believe to be true? This abnormality, mixed with the humorous parallel serve to make the tale interesting to the listener.