There are times when scepticism is simply rude. Friday night at the pep rally on the edge of Northwestern campus was one of them. It was Homecoming Weekend (which, as far as I can grasp, is the weekend when alumni come back, watch football, and write large cheques). I was gaping in disbelief and on the verge of collapsing into giggles as the crowd around me, clearly moved, arms around one another’s purple-clad shoulders, sang this hymn (click the link for a selection of audio files):
Hail to Alma Mater
We will sing thy praise forever
All thy sons and daughters
Pledge thee victory and honor
Alma Mater Praise be thine
May thy name forever shine
Hail to purple
Hail to white
Hail to thee Northwestern!
But I had not realised that these brave singers were caught in the middle of a modern crisis. For I read in the Daily Northwestern that all through last week, purple objects had to be handed out on campus: not just pompoms to wave at the rally (exhibit A, below), but beads, sunglasses, sweatbands and yet another t-shirt to add to what should by now, 5 weeks into term, be a growing collection in every student’s dorm room. What’s more, Stephanie March has had to take time out of her busy Law and Order filming schedule (nope, I’ve never heard of her either) to come back to Northwestern as Homecoming Grand Marshal, so she can encourage purple pride. And all this is necessary because, according to 2010 Homecoming co-chair Beth Lynk, ‘sometimes there is a lack of pride on campus’.
Through this post, I hope to reassure Ms Lynk with a kind of inventory of the forms of pride that I observed on Friday night.
Item, a pep rally. This is not something we have in Britain, but my compatriots might most helpfully conceptualise it as an extended version of the group hug practised by boy bands before gigs. Extended as in it lasts an hour, happens the night before the Homecoming football game, and involves not just the team that’s going to play, but a full complement of student, faculty and alumni supporters. (Plus a few anthropologically inclined Brits.) It’s followed by a parade down the road.
Item, an enormous student marching band, only slightly reminiscent of Munchkins in their quasi-military purple uniform. They performed an eclectic selection of songs that one might not conventionally think appropriate for wind instrumentation. ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Lady Gaga, ‘Bad Romance.’ And, most impressively, they did some choreography while playing: shaking their trumpets up and down, swaying from side to side, pounding their chests like Tarzan.
Item, not one but three troupes of cheering girls. These, I learn, are subsets of what can be referred to as the Spirit Squad. The Ladycats are big on pompom waving and flicking their long, loose, shiny hair around. The flag corps are part of the marching band, and twirl flags (purple) to music. The proper cheerleaders, as one would hope, are crazily smiley, have ludicrous outfits (leotards and Minnie Mouse hair bows) and like to lift each other high in the air. There was also a lone baton twirler, who looked a little cold.
Item, Willie the Wildcat. He is the team mascot. He spent the rally running off and on stage hanging out with all the purple crew. Then, for the Homecoming Parade, he climbed on an obliging fire engine.
Item, the Homecoming Court. Is it enough to have a homecoming queen? Do any of us understand what one is, beyond a lyric in a Monkees song? Well, Northwestern takes Homecoming seriously and needs ten people, practically year round, generating Wildcat Pride. Read some of their wholesome bios here. (I’m hoping the assertion that ‘I think about a world where I didn’t attend NU, and the results look pretty grim’ is laced with irony, but I’m not really sure.)
Item, NU President Morton Schapiro delivering an inspirational speech about the need to trash the Michigan State Spartans and being cheered by the crowd: ‘MorTY, MorTY, MorTY’. I would like to imagine this happening with a Russell Group vice-chancellor. But I can’t.
Item, the honouring of 2010 Nobel Prizewinning economist Dale Mortensen at the rally and the parade. How do you show some appreciation? Put him in a purple car and drive him down the street! Then, give him a special purple football jersey.
Item, the songs. Alma Mater and the more upbeat Go U Northwestern (there might have been a third – I was getting too excited to take notes). Have I mastered the growl and the paw hand-gesture? By the bemused impressed expressions of J and M, I feel confident that I have. And can I just say: Go Cats!
The next day, sadly, the Spartans triumphed once again.