DD: “At Malvern and at most boarding schools, you have all your meals in your house, which means you sit with your year group, but there’s people from [ages] 13 to 18 in that room. Whenever you turn 18, after lunch and the housemaster does all the announcements and leaves and goes to the private side, what the birthday boy would try and do is run out of the lunchroom, but what everyone else does—and it’s mainly the lower and upper sixth, like junior and senior years—they like, hold down the person and carry them out of the lunchroom and into the showers, which are in the basement. And we’re all wearing suits. And then they turn on the showers and you get thrown in the showers and you get completely soaking wet. And, also, as you’re doing this, if you resist at all, they beat the s— out of you.”
The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in the Netherlands and attended a British boarding school, Malvern college, from ages 16 to 18. He experienced this tradition on his 18th birthday and similarly hazed other students on their birthdays. DD describes this ritual as “the highest form of endearment” that someone in this environment can experience. Since homophobia and oppressive gender ideals play such a big role in shaping social dynamics at all-boys boarding schools, he says that boys often use violence to express affection for one another. He says that this ritual acts as a sort of substitute for more common birthday traditions like singing happy birthday to someone or baking them a cake, which students may deride as “gay.”
Moreover, despite the brutality and humiliation of this tradition, he argues that boys enjoy it because it’s an opportunity for them to be the center of attention and to be celebrated on their birthday.
This tradition exemplifies how transitional events are often ritualized and the tendency for people to behave in ways which would ordinarily be deemed unacceptable during liminal moments. In International Folkloristics, Arnold van Gennep describes rites of passage as “ceremonial patterns which accompany a passage from one situation to another or from one cosmic or social world to another” (Dundes 102). I am arguing that boarding school students hazing their peers on their 18th birthday is a rite of passage which marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, where the event acts as a sort of acknowledgement or confirmation of a student’s status as an adult.
People feel inclined to engage in abnormal behaviors during instances of liminality because the paradoxical qualities of these moments make people think that the conventions which govern normal time are inapplicable. In general, birthdays are liminal because they cusp the end of one year and the beginning of another. With this ritual, another dimension of liminality applies to one’s 18th birthday, as this day cusps the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. Further, one’s status as an adult is complicated by the student still being in secondary school, which is generally synonymous with childhood. One could argue that a possible intention of this rite of passage is to humble the person whose birthday it is by showing that despite having the nominal privileges of adulthood, they are still a part of the school. The inversion of social roles often occurs during liminal moments. Younger students hazing their older peers can be interpreted as flipping power dynamics.
Another feature of liminality in this ritual is it simultaneously being embraced as a cultural tradition and being seen as a form of rule breaking. Students wait for the housemaster to leave before carrying out the tradition, but this is merely a performance of secrecy which is part of the ritual. The practice is a kind of open secret, where school authorities know that it occurs and participate by turning a blind eye and not getting involved. Though such hazing would ordinarily be penalized, it is tolerated on 18th birthdays because the community understands the tradition as a longstanding rite of passage celebrating students’ transitions to adulthood.
Van Gennep, Arnold. “The Rites of Passage.” International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore, edited by Alan Dundes, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 1999.