Sunday, September 23, 2007

Hurtling through the looking glass: high-table dinner

This post is long, but I promise you it's worth it.

Tonight was the first high-table dinner of the semester, and the only one I'll be attending, as the other two will find me either traveling through mainland China or in Los Angeles for my sister's wedding. A high-table dinner is a formal dinner for all halls, in which every student dresses up, eats together, and listens to a speaker. As I understand it, the dinners here are designed to emulate the ones traditionally held at Oxford and Cambridge, if Oxford and Cambridge held theirs in 1970s-era cafeterias with Formica tables, plastic chairs, and Stauffer's microwave dinners. Or like Hogwarts, if you take out the magic, wonderment, and likable characters. If that is the case, then this high-table dinner was executed perfectly.

The first step in the process was getting dressed. As I (correctly) predicted that my hallmates would all be dressed in ill-fitting dark-gray-to-black suits with conservative white or blue shirts and modest ties, I opted for light gray slacks, my incredibly bright light green and blue striped shirt, a blue polka dot tie, rolled sleeves, and no coat. As someone who is not only a slave to the man, but is actively striving to effectively become the man, things like this are my way of engaging in mild rebellion. Also in this category: never turning off my iPod when my plane is coming in for a landing, but discreetly leaving in the one earbud that faces away from the aisle. Sometimes, I turn on the iPod when it wasn't previously in use, just out of spite. Anyhow.

Because it was raining, we decided to take cabs and buses to the dinner, which I was surprised to learn was actually being held in the Student Union on campus rather than at a nice restaurant, or a bad restaurant, or any restaurant. It seemed silly to require us to wear ties to the Student Union, but I ran with it.

We filed in, and upon arrival, were required to scan our student cards at the door to confirm our attendance. This was strikingly reminiscent of what I've been told about Scientologists, who apparently carry little scannable membership cards they must present at events, so that they can be harassed by the powers that be if they aren't being participatory enough. The principle at work here at Morrison Hall was largely the same, which is always terrifying, when your life in any way mirrors the Church of Scientology. I shudder, but proceed.

After things quieted down, everyone was asked to rise while the guests of honor entered. Normally, high-table dinners involve a guest speaker, but for the first one of the year, they decided to keep things internal and have people talk about the hall. So the honored guests were the Warden, some staff, the President of the Students Association, and the like. Then everyone chimed in a rousing rendition of the Hall Song, which I've made mention of previously, but never given you the amazing lyrics to:
Morrison mighty, honour your glory.
From far we gather with joy and harmony.
Deep in our hearts we treasure our brightest memories.
May unfading spirit drive us forward eternally.

Long live to Morrison, aspire for dignity.
Among us are formed bonds of lasting unity.
Together in our minds we strive to earn your honour.
Rekindling your glorious fire, let us triumph in our endeavors.
Since I'm on the topic, even though it wasn't performed, let me give you the Hall War Cry, which is notable in its second verse for taking a well-known expression of sportsmanship, playing with the grammar, and turning it into a cry of self-aggrandizement. That, I can respect:
One two three, three two one,
Morrison, Morrison, easy won!
M-O-R-R-I-S-O-N, Morrison!

Two, four, six, eight,
Whom do we appreciate?
M-O-R-R-I-S-O-N, Morrison!
After everyone was seated, the Warden of the hall (a remarkably apt title for the alumnus who lives in the hall and serves as an adviser/supervisor of sorts) took the microphone to welcome everyone and to encourage the students to be proactive in their hall lives and take advantage of the various clubs and teams that are available. He began his speech by asking, "Since some of you arrived after our Hall Orientation, for how many of you is this the first time you've ever seen me?" Although I had not seen the Warden before, my view of the dais was completely blocked by a large pillar, so I kept my hand down, because I still wasn't seeing him.

After his remarks, we dug into our meals, which proceeded from individually-wrapped buns (fresh!), to microwave dinner-style miscellaneous chicken dish and steamed vegetables, to a chocolate mousse with a consistency resembling dried Nutella. As it progressed, I thought to myself, Okay, this is weird for me, but this isn't objectively weird. Just because USC residences didn't encourage this strong sense of identity doesn't mean no one does. Look at the Oxbridge schools, or even Yale and Harvard. I may have been unfair.

Then dinner ended, and we went hurtling through the looking glass.

The featured speaker was the President of the Morrison Hall Students Association, who opened his address by informing us that he was sad and stressed, not because of his workload or responsibilities, but because he had heard reports that Morrisonians were passing each others in the hallway, in the elevator, and on campus without saying hello to one another. This, he said, was a serious problem. As a half-concerned, half-chuckling murmur stirred through the crowd, El Presidente became increasingly agitated and raised his voice.

Sharing an experience of passing a fellow Morrisonian on campus who, as he approached, pulled out a cell phone and started playing on it to avoid stopping and exchange pleasantries, he demanded, "At Morrison Hall, we are family! Would you treat your mother like this? Would you pass your mother in the street and not say hello?" Calming himself a bit, he encouraged us all to carry ourselves with dignity and mutual respect, particularly when we were wearing our Morrison Hall t-shirts.

The mention of these shirts, however, sent him into another crescendo of near-shouting rhetoric. He bemoaned how many hall residents had declined to purchase a Hall shirt, either because they didn't wish to pay for it, or because they were unhappy with the design, cut, or size (I declined for both of these reasons, as well as my staunch refusal to show hall pride that doesn't exist). "We are not selling fashion," he insisted, and made clear that aesthetic concerns would no longer be regarded as sufficient reason to avoid the hall shirt.

Turning his attention to what he regarded as the failure of most residents to get sufficiently involved with hall activities, so that they might better learn from one another and their mutual experiences. "What are you here to learn?" he asked in a cold, demanding tone. "Are you just here to learn how to make excuses for doing nothing?" Turning to the masters to drive home his point, he suggested that we should "Ask not what our hall can do for us, but ask what we can learn from our hall." I briefly pondered whether looking for things our hall could teach us wasn't just another form of asking what our hall could do for us, but my thought process was interrupted by another barrage of questions.

"Why are you here?" he demanded to know, again emphasizing the need to take advantage of the hall experience and to learn from it. "It's not just because you come from somewhere far away from the university!" On that point, I couldn't agree with him more. It's also because of the outrageously low cost of living here!

Demonstrating an acute sensitivity to current events, he announced that he was very disappointed to see that, during the recital of the Hall Song, several students were not singing, and several others were even openly snickering (not me...I just stood quietly in wonderment). El Presidente reminded us that, at future high-table dinners, we would have guest speakers from outside the hall, and that if those speakers ever saw such a disgraceful display, it would bring great shame upon Morrison Hall and all it stood for.

He concluded with a call to action, declaring decisively that, "The SA [Student Association] is not the most important resident of Morrison Hall: the most important resident is each one of you! And also the Floor Committees. And also the clubs. And also the sports teams." To prove it, he went on to announce the name of every Floor Representative, Club President, and Sports Captain, each of whom stood up to brief and polite applause.

The President was seated, and we all thought ourselves spared. A few rote announcements were made about scheduling issues, upcoming events, and a surprisingly warmly-received invitation from the President of the Chess Club to join their noble ranks.

Then, just when it seemed that dinner was over, the President of the Students Association retook the microphone. But he wasn't going to be all negative tonight, oh no. He wanted to thank and recognize all of the hard-working students of the Orientation Committee, who had made the Hall Orientation before the school year such a stirring success. He called out each one by name and room number, and each again received brief and polite applause from the assembled masses.

But if praise was to be received, then criticism was to be borne. There were, it seems, some students who had shirked their responsibilities in the organization and execution of Orientation Week, and El Presidente wanted to encourage everyone to, in the future, fully honor their commitments to the hall. To emphasize this point, he identified the name and room number of each student who had not fulfilled his or her Orientation Committee duties. Those students did not receive brief or polite applause, nor applause of any kind (I was tempted to try a slow clap, but thought better of it).

After another brief call for us to be the best hall residents we could be, the President took his seat and the staff manager of the building complex where our hall is located took the microphone. With no further pleasantries, she drew the ceremony to a close.

"High-table dinner is end."


AnonymousGGlawyer said...

You definitely should have tried the slow clap. Also, I believe I remember that polka dot tie from when you were similarly rebellious at a certain "Black and White" party over the summer. Damn the man, save the empire.

This comment is end.

smc said...

Oh, SNAP. El Prez isn't taking any prisoners.