Opinion

THE HEART OF DARKNESS: A Beloiter’s Unofficial experience and what it teaches us about ourselves

Winston Pennington-Flax, Contributor

A week ago last Friday, I unwittingly scheduled myself into a spring break experience I won’t soon forget.  I had planned many months in advance to visit my older sister, who lives in downtown Champaign, Ill., the home of the University of Illinois.  It was not until I had purchased tickets and finalized a date, though, that she offered me one piece of guidance: “Oh god, please be careful.  And don’t wear green.”
Created in 1996 by a bar owner to capitalize on the fact that the University’s spring break almost always encompasses St. Patrick’s Day, “Unofficial” is a celebration of public drunkenness that is seldom matched in its debauchery and gracelessness.  Rather than discount or avoid the experience, though, I decided I would meet with some high school friends of mine and hit the scene as a participant.  This struck me as a fantastic opportunity:  I could jump right into the drinking culture and jump right back out to my sister’s place when I was tired of it.  Doing so, I opened up the possibilities for some juicy gonzo journalism (the breadth of which will likely not fit in this piece) and to meet a request from ResLife for some creative interpretation of our widely applied yet scarcely understood alcohol philosopho-policy.
As my Greyhound entered the city, I was immediately welcomed through the window by hordes of scholarly peers in green shirts with such clever slogans as “We put the RAGE in undeRAGE,” and  “KEEP CALM AND DRINK ON.”  Also notable were the ambulances poised on high-traffic corners and the ominous Carle Hospital helicopters, which appeared to be making regular rounds overhead.  With a student body fluctuating around 40,000, high numbers of serious injury, alcohol poisoning and often death are statistically inescapable.
Later that night, sitting on my friend’s third-story porch overlooking University Avenue where I watched two consecutive drivers fail sobriety tests, I bore all these conflicting messages in mind.  Inside, the partygoers were playing a gross abstraction of a drinking game that involved chugging as much beer as possible from a common vessel while everyone else chanted a rewrite of “macho man.”  I, with the full intent to walk the two miles to my sister’s apartment in the next hour, stole away to sit on the porch.  It may have simply been that everyone was far too drunk, but I was astounded that no one really had any piece of criticism for my action.  No one joined me, but I received many glossy-eyed looks of confusion that may have been tinged with admiration.  It didn’t feel like a courageous act, but to some that knew they would wake up on a floor the next afternoon it may have seemed that way.
At lunch the next day, my cousin Gretchen, a hall director at the University, informed me that, among other shenanigans, one of her RAs was assaulted with a handful of homophobic slurs and a broken glass bottle the night before.  I was astounded to say the least, and couldn’t imagine the outrage such an incident would cause on my own campus. Beloit College’s philosophy seems to espouse public drunkenness every weekend, so what is it that keeps us from resembling a low-budget zombie film?  Though some might say we can “hold our own,” I would venture to add one more word and say that we hold our own accountable.  It’s remarkable the way that Beloiters will swarm on anyone, student or not, who begins to act out of line, and no single one of us is afraid to step up to the plate and confront something that doesn’t ring quite right.
Though we may choose to support a bar at 6 a.m. or enjoy a beer in the shower at dawn, we recognize that the choice to do so falls on us alone, and that alcohol tolerance does not have an even exchange with social success.  This understanding is crucial to keeping our system running, and what offered me the liberty to walk away from several ridiculous situations.  So, the next time you’re uncomfortable in a situation, speak your mind—often the majority may benefit more than you think from a well-placed counterpoint.  Differing opinions in all situations fuel the diversity of thought that makes our campus community forward thinking and well-rounded, and not to mention quite friendly towards open consumption.

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