(Falta de) School Spirit: Or, on Leaving My Alma Mater Behind (Maybe)

Dumpster behind FLB: or, talking to the students. Photo from May 2015. Dumpster décor from sometime before 2011.

School spirit has always rather mystified me. It seems to be a Thing which people Feel, or at least many people feel it. My parents even get nostalgic when they drive through Madison, pointing out where they trudged uphill both ways to classes in the cold; where Mifflin Street Co-Op was, back in the day (and where they all got beaten while sitting on their porches playing banjos and other harmless acoustic pieces of americana). I have taken friends into my alma mater in downtown Chicago, but this is less from nostalgia for the place (I have very little; evidently I am not a sentimental person) and more because I love the building, with a deep and abiding love that makes me want to share it with anyone and everyone, while expounding merrily away on its architectural and historical significance. (There are many–after all, the excellent sightlines in the theatre itself are drawn from its architects’ and sponsors’ egalitarian ideals, which is, I think, a pretty good reason to visit.)

Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building, stairs to the second floor lounge. Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, ILL,16-CHIG,39-99, by JW Taylor. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I moved on, from a school in an old and historic hotel, to a sprawling campus-in-the-cornfields, with more than 30,000 undergraduates–and another 10,000 or so grads, along with an army of professors and staff people of all stripes. (I taught a few hundred of those undergrads in my three years as a TA.) My new home was the Foreign Language Building, which everyone and their auntie calls FLB. It is, architecturally, almost as different from Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building as one can possibly get: it is an ugly relic of the ’60s, showing its age far worse than one of the tallest of the load-bearing walled buildings in the world. (The Monadnock, also in Chicago and sporting quite possibly the thickest walls ever, takes that honor.)

FLB lacks the beauty of the Auditorium Building (Sullivan would be aghast, since its form really doesn’t follow its function) or the striking elegance (and thickness!) of the Monadnock. It is, in truth, a very ugly building, about which many a strange yarn has been spun. Perhaps the most amusing, to me, is the story that the building was designed to hide a Big Special Supercomputer from…someone? Since apparently a building filled with postcolonialists is THE place to hide things? Clearly I felt no beauty-induced school spirit–and, as a graduate student in an intensive program (I read around a thousand pages during a light week), I was removed enough from the rest of the university that FLB was essentially my world.

And a magnificent world it is, too. What FLB lacks in beauty, or elegance, or even sensible design, the departments within make up for through the intense shared communities which spring up. In many ways the building remains my home on campus, though I have nearly left campus itself. I spent more time there than I ever did in my second academic “home,” despite the fact that the building there (though odd–it was a repurposed fraternity house) is actually nicer. I can still walk the halls and know many of the people, from my departmental comrades to the faculty and staff with whom I have worked for so many years.

I did not realize quite how enmeshed I had become in FLB’s world until I graduated. Athletics are commonly associated with school spirit, no doubt part of the reason I have always assumed I was incapable of feeling this “school spirit” thing that other people felt. At my graduation, filled with throngs of graduates and undergraduates who had studied literatures, languages, and cultures, the band played–the University’s fight songs. A whole lot of University fight songs. (Thankfully they appear not to play any of the most racially insensitive fight songs.) We the clueless grad students, naturally, turned to our undergrad peers to ask if anyone knew the lyrics. Now, our undergrads have participated far more than most of us in the many worlds and cultures of the University as a whole, if indeed there is such a thing. Many have double-majored (I did too, long ago, but one was language/literature, the other art history).

It turned out that we didn’t know the words to the fight songs, so in the end we all giggled and whispered and wondered how they were supposed to be sung. When I look back on my graduation, our gleeful cluelessness is one of the highlights of the day–along with the old students who came up to me afterwards, and the undergrads who had served me in restaurants and checked me out in stores and cheered for me as I walked. I had never expected anyone but my family to cheer, in truth, and the ceremony has reminded me that this “school spirit” thing really is not the sole provenance of those who actually know the words to fight songs.

I put off plastering my car with University decals for an age. My mother had put them on the family car; I wanted none of it, though, in truth, I did search for something–anything!–that would visibly tie me, and my vehicle, to the School of Literatures, Cultures, & Linguistics, the “country” that inhabits FLB and comes together in times both good and bad. (I have yet to find such a thing–not a tshirt, not a decal, not even a bumper sticker.) This year, as I am slowly leaving my twice-over alma mater behind, I have finally stuck an obnoxiously orange I on my car, along with a glaring window decal. Makes the car easier to spot, but, mostly, it is a link to SLCL, and to GSLIS.

The University, to me, is a world comprised of many small (or not-so-small) worlds, some of them seemingly connected only by the University’s name. Perhaps this is why I have lacked school spirit for the entirety, but feel it strongly for the parts. I have also exercised it in very different ways, from serving my grad student union to attending every performance I could of Lyric Theatre and its predecessors. I am still so proud to have been able to attend so many performances by the brilliant young musicians and artists behind the student opera and musical theatre productions presented at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. For others are the big, noisy games, filled with those fight songs that are, now and forever, a mystery to me; I choose instead performing arts on which to stake my school spirit. (I like to believe that, some day, I’ll attend a play or an opera or a concert and be able to tell the world that I saw this performer, or singer, or actor, or stage director, when s/he was a student at the University–and go to see their current students, because they are excellent!)

Now, after four years and two Master’s degrees, I am leaving town. I will never have, or feel, the kind of school spirit that others  seem to feel so acutely. I will never know those fight songs, and most of them will make me cringe. (I might even pull out my little book of postcolonial theory, and analyze them.) But four years there have left an indelible mark on me, not only from the two Master’s (and everything that accompanies being a graduate student in the United States), but also from the friends I have made and the colleagues with whom I have worked. I’ll probably never wear a tshirt emblazoned with the University’s name, although I have a couple stuffed away (they were cheap, and helped me push off my laundry to another day). I’d still like one emblazoned with SLCL, or SpanPort, or GSLIS, or the Library–the places that will always have my loyalty.

An image from my first year of grad school: the Morrow Plots, 2011. Image housed on CU LocalWiki.

I don’t know if, in twenty or thirty or forty years, I’ll nostalgically point out the building where our barg team met for hours, days, weeks, months. Maybe I’ll get misty-eyed when I looked into our union’s old offices, or when, eventually, FLB gets torn down and replaced–although I think that the world inside FLB is far, far more important than the building which holds it, and so I would only want to make sure that the world would continue. Since I have a yen for scandal and lurid tales, I will always half-remember the random ghost stories,2 and the tales of raccoons holding court in the English Building. I will probably never forget killing, to my students’ consternation, a wasp that flew into our classroom. I will also remember the experimental cornfields, oldest of their kind in the United States and second-oldest in the world, home of genetically modified crops since the 1800s. I make fun of them, and I am rather proud of them. Perhaps that is itself a form of school spirit, rather than a lack. When I was a new and terrified TA, my students suggested I run through those plots. (Naturally I did not; I have rather a self preservation instinct. But it still makes me laugh.) I’ve found (and even written articles about) many of the oldest structures on campus, including the Mumford House, but I always learn about architecture.This time, however, I know I will go back, to see friends and coworkers, and maybe even to visit Krannert.

The Mumford House, also from early in my grad school tenure. It is the oldest building on the University’s campus, hailing from the long-ago days when the quads were a working farm. Image house at CU LocalWiki.

But there is something that is perhaps related to school spirit, in whatever manner the critical theory loving grad student may understand such a concept: identity. Yesterday my mother pointed out that I am no longer a grad student, a position which has been, for four years, central to my identity and my feeling of self. I am no longer quite sure what, or who, I am, in light of this change. I suppose that I am (or will soon be) a young urban professional–a yuppie, heavens to Betsy! For at least the present, I think I will simply continue to identify as a nerd–a quiet, introverted creature fond of tagging along after extroverted friends (and fully capable of participating in raucous family gatherings), who spends hours buried in art and music and literature, who researches and who hopes to help make the world a better, more just place. I am more confident now, more analytical. For all the faults of the University, and for all my own lack of school spirit, I could not have gotten here without the people I have met there. That, in the end, is likely the closest thing to school spirit that I will ever be able to muster. Perhaps it is also the most important.

1 The Monadnock, at Dearborn and Jackson, is a creature sprung from two architectural firms: Burnham and Root (yes, that Burnham) and Holabard and Roche. Its Wikipedia entry, while a Wikipedia entry, is a decent source of quickie info.

For the interested or uninitiated, University lore (including a supposedly haunted English building) can be found on Campus Myth Hunters, from 2011; Haunted Colleges; and an article, written to coincide with Halloween ’14, by the University’s student newspaper. (A further article, Annette Lesak’s 2005 “Urban Legends at UIUC” webpage, has, alas, disappeared since 2015.)  Some of these legends seem to focus on wonky elevators. Having worked in more than one building with a wonky elevator, I would posit that there is another explanation. I also rather doubt that kissing one’s lover by the “eternal flame” is going to do any good, but since it won’t do any harm either, smooch away.

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