Author Archives: Hlbrec

Championing in the Writing for Screen and Television Department of USC School of Cinematic Arts

Main piece:

Student #1: It was like, the way people get into screenwriting is every screenwriting professor picks an application and has to fight for it. Um, and so every student has their “champion” who is the one who fought for them to get into this program, and then before you graduate they have to tell you who they are. 

Student #2: I heard the same version Student #1 heard but I didn’t hear it freshman year. I heard it at Admitted Student Day back as a senior. And there was like this panel of like upperclassmen getting ready to graduate and they were doing this Q&A and then one of them brought up the champions and they basically said what Student #1 said, but then they also said that there was like a room somewhere that they go to specifically to do the applications each year, to read them, and before we graduate they’ll take us to that room and be like ‘oh this is where you were chosen’ or something like that. 

Background: Student #1 and Student #2 are sophomore majors of the Writing for Screen and Television Program and USC School of Cinematic Arts. Although away from campus due to COVID-19, both of them were on campus and participating in its folklore the previous year. While Student #1 couldn’t remember where she heard the legend, she believed it was when she was on campus freshman year. Additionally, freshman year SCA students are assigned a “big”, an older student in the major who is meant to show them the ropes first semester, and are known to pass down lore to incoming students. As stated above, Student #2 heard it during Admitted Students Day. 

Context: This piece was brought to my attention through a text message Student #2 sent, requesting that we meet to discuss “SCA” (School of Cinematic Arts) folklore. She casually mentioned “like the rumor of having champions and the secret room where they read our applications”. I had never heard that rumor, and ended up meeting with her and Student #1 (via Zoom) to discuss it, and share the folklore that I knew in return. Both students called the championing a “legend”, which means they are unsure about the “truthiness” of it. They both seemed inclined to believe it to be true, or at the very least hopeful that some professor wanted them there and was looking out for them. 

Analysis: Championing is a Writing for Screen and Television major legend that serves as a way of making new members feel wanted in the community. People hear of championing either once they’ve been admitted to the school or when they first get there, a time that they are technically a member of the community even if it doesn’t feel that way yet. This liminality, accompanied by the fact that college in itself is a new scary space, has students looking for reasons to belong. Being told that they are special enough to fight for, and in fact, their membership is contingent on someone fighting for them, makes students feel more comfortable in the space, and induces a greater sense of validation and belonging. The legend of championing is accompanied by the knowledge (true or not) that it is not happenstance nor circumstance that led to their acceptance, but a completely intentional act. Additionally, many people are away from their parents for the first time once they attend college, and having a teacher “choosing” them inspires a greater sense of comfort as this can be analogized to their own relationships with mentors or other parental figures. It can also be interpreted as creating stronger bonds among the students themselves, as they are the “chosen” ones, specifically selected to be there when others were rejected. This “us vs. them” mentality creates a shared identity that can be used to inspire greater familiarity among new students, as well as students from older grades. As it is traditionally the older students who pass down this knowledge to the younger ones, the legend of championing can be used by older members to invite younger ones into the community. The addition of a “secret room” where the applications are read heightens the sensibility that the students are important and that the Writing for Screen and Television department itself is prestigious enough to warrant this kind of behavior, adding mystery to a process students are already familiar with, that of college admissions.

We’re All Off like a Herd of Turtles

Main piece: When we’re all leaving but we’re kind of late, someone will say “we’re all off like a herd of turtles”. But my family intentionally mispronounces it, so they say “we’re off like nerd of nerdles” or “we’re off like a turd of hurdles”.

Background: My informant is a twenty-year old woman from Richardson, Texas. Her father is from Malmesbury, a town Wiltshire, England, and her mother is from Dallas, Texas.

Explanation: Turtles are famously slow, so “we’re all off like a herd of turtles” means that “we are moving incredibly slowly and are definitely going to be late.”

Analysis: This folk simile exists to make light out of an unfortunate situation, that of being late. Being late can create anxiety, but having a funny saying allows the family to laugh it off, and also serves as a gentle reprimand that they should be moving faster. Additionally, intentionally misstating the phrase is another way to make light of the fact that they’ve made a mistake and don’t have enough time to get wherever they are going punctually, essentially saying that “we’re late, so we can’t do anything right, not even saying the phrase about being late”.

The Tooth Fairy

Main piece: Every tooth you got a note from the tooth fairy, who was a woman – a Ms. Tooth Fairy. And she had a wand and a costume. And there was a rate for it. One tooth was $1, molars were $5, and the last tooth was a big deal, like 20 bucks. The fairy is magic. She’s real. She sent me a letter. But, you know, my children loved those notes. One of them kept all of them.

Background:  My informant is a fifty-three year old woman from Los Angeles, California. She is the mother of three children, aged twenty, sixteen, and fourteen. Whenever one of them would lose a tooth, they would receive some money (rates stated above), and a letter from the tooth fairy inquiring after their general well-being, and complimenting how big they’ve grown. To this day, whenever her children ask about the tooth fairy (including her eldest for the purposes of a folklore project), she adamantly says “she” is real. 

Context: The tooth fairy is a common folk character. The Western variation of this folklore states that if a child loses their tooth and leaves it under a pillow, the tooth fairy will come, take the tooth, and bring them money. In the case of my informant’s children, a note would accompany the typical tradition, and my informant continues to tell her children of its existence, even if they are old enough now to no longer believe in her. 

My informant told this story when I brought up Santa Claus as an example of a character rooted in folklore. 

Analysis: The folklore of being given money by the tooth fairy comes from the fear of losing one’s teeth- an otherwise horrific and scary occurrence for any young child to deal with. By rewarding or giving the child a present in exchange for the lost tooth, they are able to take something that would otherwise be seen as strange and scary and make it seem exciting or something to look forward to. The notes as an accompaniment to the money made the experiences of the children of my informant more personal, and having a stock character that wrote to them and comforted them made that experience even easier to handle. Additionally, my informant’s refusal to deny the existence of the tooth fairy to this day has more to do with her perspective than that of the kids’, as having a tooth fairy is part of childhood, and as the children grow up, they no longer need her and stop believing in her. My informant’s insistence of her continued existence in reality is her way of connecting the character with the childhood innocence of her children, even now that they are mostly grown up.  (For another version, see Stuurman, May 18, 2020, “The Tooth Fairy”, USC Folklore Archives)

The Second Name

Main piece: We have the tradition of naming our children after loved ones who have died. If however, the person who is deceased died at a young age, we give the baby a second name of an old person. We want the baby to have better luck and live longer; live a long life.

Background: My informant is a seventy-nine year old Ashkenazi Jewish woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also my grandmother. She describes herself as a follower of “bubbe-meise” (Yiddish), translated to “grandmother’s fable”, or a more serious version of old wive’s tales that are often accompanied by superstitions.

Context: My informant and I were discussing Jewish cultural traditions, when she asked me if I could remember where I got my name. I told her that it was after my great-aunt (her sister-in-law), who died fairly young (she was fifty-nine) of breast cancer. My informant then asked me if I remembered where I got my middle name. I told her it was after her (the informant’s) grandmother, who lived well into her nineties (she was around ninety-seven when she passed). My informant then explained this cultural practice to me. My informant’s eldest son’s name followed this tradition as well. 

Analysis: It is a custom of Ashkenazi culture to name children after deceased loved ones, as both a way of honoring them and carrying their memories on  (this is not true for all Jewish people; Sephardic Jews name their children after living relatives, while Ashkenazi Jews do not). However, with loved ones who unfortunately did not live long or happy lives there is a fear that the children will also be cursed with a similar fate. However, by adding on a second name of someone who did have, as my informant puts it, “better luck”, the parents can honor their loved one while cancelling out any bad luck or misfortune that may accompany the name. Additionally, the source of the name is usually someone the parents want their child to emulate, or whose virtues the deceased namesake could hopefully pass on. There is also a belief that the soul of the deceased loved one lives on in the child who carries their name. The fear then comes from the idea that the child will not only inherit the virtues of their namesake, but the misfortunes as well. By tagging on a second name of someone who had a happier or longer life, the parents then believe that the souls of the two namesakes will both bequeath their virtues, and not their misfortunes.

Washing One’s Hands After a Funeral

Main piece: There’s a tradition of washing your hands after a funeral so you don’t bring death into the house. If you’ve been near a dead body, you want to get the death off your hands. You don’t want to bring death into your house. Even after my dad’s funeral, friends of my mother, who had stayed back to help with the catering and the flowers, they put a pitcher outside. I was impressed by all that actually. It’s what you do. Some cemeteries have a water fountain. Outside Jewish funeral homes there’s a place to wash your hands. 

Background: My informant is a 51 year-old Jewish woman. The majority of the funerals she has attended have been in Jewish cemeteries with Jewish burial practices. She doesn’t remember where she learned the practice exactly, but she recalls vividly seeing the pitcher of water outside a Jewish funeral home at her aunt’s funeral when she was fourteen. The logic makes sense to her, and she has partaken in this ritual many times before. 

Context: I was talking to my informant about Jewish traditions, and this was the first one that occurred to her. 

Analysis: This practice makes a lot of sense. A funeral is a liminal space, as it is the final celebration of the life of someone who is now deceased. With that comes a lot of uncertainty, and fear that death can come for anyone else next. By washing your hands before entering a home, you don’t cross the doorway between a graveyard or a cemetery – a place of death, and your house – a place where you live/where life happens. This also promotes the idea that death can linger/cling to a live person, and having a ritualistic cleansing of death from your hands encourages a sense of protection, and that it won’t come for you next.