In the Middle of Life, The Author Changes His Mind and Starts Wearing Orange and MaroonThis is a piece that I've been drafting and re-drafting in my head for the past three months or so. It isn't particularly topical anymore, but is like a clog in a drain...I have to get it out in order to write a few other things.
On the other hand, after being harassed by John's friend Andrea for my clothing, I feel like this has a little bit of currency.
Forget the dining hall food, forget the classes. Forget the new places, the unfamiliar faces, the twangy Southwest Virginia accents. Forget the isolation, the cavernous classrooms, and the strange engineering majors. When I first came to college, my anxieties centered around one thing: school colors.
Some of the colleges that I applied to had colors that were simply strong and shocking, like red and white; some went together in a clever, harmonious way, like orange and blue; and some were impressively historical, like blue and gray. Virginia Tech's burnt orange and Chicago maroon, however, had nothing to recommend them. They were neither beautiful, nor historical, nor even particularly exciting. They were just a random mix of colors that no amount of squinting or deliberate eye-gouging could ameliorate. The more I looked at them, the more they resembled scabs paired with highway safety vests.
Still, I was a freshman, and buying into the rah-rah spirit is a rite of passage, so I dutifully forked over my dough and picked up a sweatshirt, a keychain, a couple of shot glasses, and assorted other overpriced pieces of collegiate merchandise. I carefully arranged my clothes to minimize the effect, pairing my Virginia Tech t-shirt with a tasteful crew-neck sweater or making sure to wear my Tech sweatshirt to fundraisers for colorblind students. Even so, sporting the orange and maroon always had a sense of grim duty, like spending Christmas with an insane aunt or singing the Star-Spangled Banner.
As I progressed through the ranks at Tech, my responsibility to the orange and maroon began to fade. Part of this was my estrangement from the sports program. The last football game I attended, during my freshman year, featured a battle between Tech's Hokies and Clemson's Tigers. Braving a late-fall wind in the upper bleachers, I watched my team's manoevres dissolve into slapstick while the guys behind me put away the better part of a bottle of tequila. At halftime, Tech was hopelessly behind, and one of my fellow fans stuck out his tongue to show me a half-chewed worm. By the end of the game, I had hypothermia, Clemson was playing its second string, and the idiots behind me were throwing up.
Somehow, football games never really regained their cachet.
By the time I got to graduate school, the football team had progressed from a gang of loveable losers to a pack of hired thugs. This was the Christy Brzonkala period, when the gang rape of a female student was splashed across the pages of national papers and was appealed all the way to the Supreme court. While this drama unfolded, the football team regularly attacked other athletes, each other, and random students. Rarely a month went by without some kid showing up at the emergency room sporting the marks of a brutal beating. The football players, of course, were never punished.
As I already pointed out, one needs a very good reason to wear orange and maroon. If it isn't team loyalty, then one must, perhaps, feel a great deal of love for the University. For me, though, this was hard to come by. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that I was accruing a considerable loan debt to attend the school, yet still had to pay exorbitant parking tickets. Perhaps it was the uncaring administrators. Perhaps it was the fact that I once had my account blocked because of a $6.00 discrepancy that later turned out to be the fault of the Registrar's office. Regardless, the University didn't fill me with love. At least, not enough love to convince me to wear orange and maroon.
Later, when I was a teacher, the slogans that they put on the clothes were so horrifying that I could barely stand to look at them in class, much less wear them. Here are a random few:
"Who needs a Benz? We've got a Beamer!"
This one references Coach Beamer, an obnoxious good-old-boy who appears to have a conjoined twin growing out of his neck and makes more money than God. Seriously, Beamer is better funded than several departments at Virginia Tech. I have no love for the man, although I'm impressed by the fact that he's managed to put together a winning football team. It only took him twenty years.
"Get out of our Lane!"
This one references Lane Stadium, the most expensive building on campus. Lane is like a cathedral built to honor Virginia Tech's semi-professional football team. Imagine, if you will, the Statue of Liberty or the Parthenon, except it's dedicated to mammon and mediocrity.
"Stick it in! Stick it in!"
My students repeatedly assured me that this slogan referenced football in some oblique way. However, it is worth noting that none of my male students ever wore it. Not even the gay ones.
So, anyway, I never really felt the need or the desire to wear the school colors. I dutifully put them on for a few years in the early nineties, but my freshman togs eventually fell apart, and I didn't replace them.
Until April 17th.
The day after the shootings, I came to school to try to find my students, attend the convocation, and generally see if I could do anything useful. As I walked to campus, I remembered that I didn't own any Tech swag. More to the point, I realized that wearing the colors would say something to my students, particularly given my outspoken opposition of the past. It was a little chilly, so I bought a maroon and orange striped scarf, which I wore until the afternoon, when it got searingly hot. I later bought an orange and maroon bandanna and a maroon baseball cap, which I wore the next day when I came in. By the time I left for New York, I had picked up a few other baseball caps, a sweatshirt, and an orange polo shirt. I gave a lot of these items out to family members and friends and found that wearing the colors comforted me.
Over the next week or so, I thought about this a lot. I'm not a shop therapy kind of guy, but Tech merchandise was making me feel better. It was like discovering a hitherto-unnoticed congenital disorder or realizing that one really, truly loves Pauly Shore films. I was simultaneously ashamed and comforted.
When I returned to school, I bought a maroon polo shirt for teaching the first day of class. My students noticed it, but we didn't talk about it very much. I told myself that it was for them, but I also realized that it was partially for me. For the first time, I was proud of the colors of my school, although I still didn't understand why.
For the rest of the semester, I trooped the colors. Most days, it was a discreet ribbon or a handkerchief, just a little something to comfort me and make me feel grounded. As graduation approached, I realized why I was wearing these clothes. For the first time in years, I felt a real pride in my school. It wasn't about the football team, which was in the off season, or the administration, which was doing everything it could to cover up its failures. It was about my students, past and present, many of whom were going through the most painful feelings of their lives, yet were attempting to comfort each other. I was struck by the bravery of the young adults that I had helped teach, and the responsibility that they showed for their classmates. For the first time in years, I felt the magnitude of my job, and realized how humbling it is to help a young person become an adult.
Since leaving Tech, I pull out the orange and maroon from time to time. Somehow, wearing it still feels right.
Labels: April 16th, Brzonkala, Clemson, Coach Beamer, college swag, football, Hokies, Lane Stadium, orange and maroon, Virginia Tech