Smells Like Teen Spirit

Carlo Matos

Smells Like Teen Spirit

I admit I don’t understand people with school spirit. There are people who have it and those who don’t. Though this is most likely a false binary, it also seems to be a defining difference. Shibboleths sound good in theory, but this kind of thinking has its perils—forty and two thousand bodies in the River Jordan and all that. For people with school spirit, the event—whether it be a sporting contest, a school rally, a political affair, or a religious gathering—is embodied in the act of showing which side they play for. Take, for example, sporting events: although winning is the ostensible endgame, it is largely a ruse, a self-imposed one to be sure, but a ruse nonetheless. People with school spirit will go bananas if they win, it’s true, but they will go equally wild if they lose. The outcome of the game, as far as I can tell, is arbitrary. An outside observer (if one had no previous knowledge of the result of the contest) might find it difficult to distinguish if he were watching a victory celebration or an enraged mob lashing out at the universe for some great crime committed against their person, for every mob is made of individuals no matter what they say the next morning.


When I was in college, my best friend, Sean, and I were making our way back to the dorms not realizing that some important sporting event had just concluded. We were largely unaware that we had a very good basketball team that year, since basketball is number three on our list of most tedious sports to watch after football and golf, but which did help to explain the presence of the five or six towering figures we were constantly running into in the bathroom—the great social equalizer of the campus community. The bathrooms were not meant to be coed, but the sheer amount of puke splattered in shower and toilet stall alike often forced us to share the one shower that through sheer chance survived the previous night’s purge. Finding this shower was a challenge, like an early morning scavenger hunt made tedious by constant repetition. The math was nonlinear and the equations got away from us very quickly. Sean and I had a weekly pool in which we tried to predict which shower stall on which floor would survive the weekend unmolested. I learned a ton about statistical analysis that semester and about how difficult predictions are to make no matter how much data you have. Apparently both women and men shared the same disgusting proclivity for marking their territory after a night of binge drinking two-dollar pitchers of cheap beer. We were all very blasé about it (we were very worldly, after all) but I admit to having a very clear memory of the first time I showered next to a person of the opposite sex as if that was some kind of rite of passage. And maybe it was, I don’t know.

In any event, we returned that night to find the dorms literally aflame. Students were actually heaving couches from lounges on every fifth floor, broken glass misting on drifts of smoke. Six thousand students lived in a complex of towers that were twenty-six stories high, so some of these couches were meteoring down and landing with devastating explosive force, sending flaming debris among the mob of drunken college students: some crying, some yelling, some chanting, some crawling among the wreckage and moaning like mendicants. And then Sean and I noticed in the perimeter of the darkness imposing, faceless shadows ready like Odin’s hat for the slaughter; police on horseback had surrounded the dorms in order to contain the carnage to school grounds. We love to throw around the word “apocalypse” these days, but that scene remains the closest I’ve ever gotten to it—apocalypse as poor imitation of a Bosch painting with figures clad in Abercrombie and Fitch and pajama pants; a fantasy straight out of one of those all-too-common end-of-days cults who worship at the hooves of the pale rider. And yet, through some miracle of youthful ignorance, death did not gallop in that night. I didn’t want to calculate those odds. One does not calculate the odds for miracles.

It wasn’t ecstatic; it was ecstasy: the painted faces, the chanting, and the returning home to resume their normal lives after a good night’s sleep. This last part was key. Though there were times when school spirit turned ugly, went full-blown hooligan, the normative experience was not one of violence though it needed to carefully verge on the lips of violence. Sometimes, though we are told otherwise by every beer commercial and Facebook meme, we must know when to quit. It must be proximal to mass violence but never cross the boundary. It was a Christmas kind of dedication: one day of intensely fraught fellowship, bright lights, and then back to the grind as if nothing much had happened. The next day, they go about their business looking askance and slightly confused by the wreckage that survived the night, far from the lure of flames framed in darkness that will not hold up under the light of the morning clock struck dumb from repeated blows.

Carlo Matos has published three books of poetry and one book of fiction. His poems and stories have appeared in such journals as Iowa Review, PANK, Another Chicago Magazine, and Paper Darts, among others. Carlo is a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago and a teaching artist of the Roost Moans Poetry Coop. A former cage fighter, he now trains fighters and is at work on a novel.



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