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Department Holiday Party
by Solomon Philbrick
Graduate school is one of the murkier forms of one’s existence as a student. On one hand, we have teachers who assign papers and grades. On the other, we are technically part of the faculty. We call our professors by their first names, shake hands with them and attend parties at their houses. It’s a weird shift of power balance: grad students are the peers of the very professors who hold the scissors above our academic and professional fates.
As an undergraduate I never schmoozed because it was not important to actually get to know the professors. I turned my papers in on time, studied for exams and crossed my fingers when the grades were about to come in. Grad school is different. I have to be “collegial.” This is not the natural role for an introverted bookworm, but there are things we all have to do in life and I am slowly training myself to do them. Things like attending department functions. Or sitting through four hour lectures on eighteenth century novels that nobody told me to attend. And, finally, the holiday party, the subject of this festive week’s post.
I took the bus to campus and arrived twenty minutes before the beginning of the party, just enough time to have a cigarette and check my mailbox. The only thing in the box was the paper I had turned in a few days earlier with an attached sheet explaining my fairly low grade in the course. Now, the beauty of all this is that the very professor who gave me this grade was at that moment standing in the room where the party was about to start. He was talking to some of the other students from the class, who I later found out had not checked their papers yet. It is a strange position to know that in a moment you will have to talk to the person who found your work unsatisfactory and to have to pretend that neither of you know this. That’s what I did. I grabbed some very bad food and talked to him as if I had not even seen my grade. Thankfully, moments later he went off to join some other faculty and his students (myself included) formed a group and chatted about the class.
After pretending to be social for twenty minutes or so we were all ordered to take seats for some sort of ceremonial…thing. I tried to find a seat but wound up standing near the doorway because the seats were all taken. Now, I’m not gigantic, but I am six feet tall and very self-conscious, and being the only one standing in a packed room was very uncomfortable to say the least. Then it got worse. People began giving speeches and congratulating one another, each one talking for at least fifteen minutes while the room became hotter and hotter. I was the only person in the room standing and not speaking. I felt the sweat running down my nose.
Here’s the thing: I know full well that no one was paying any attention to me, but like I said I am very self-conscious, so even knowing that no one cared whether I sat or stood did nothing to help my mental state at that moment. I finally knelt down where I was standing just so no one could see me, and found out that I had been standing next to a trash can. So, I was sweating profusely and kneeling next to a trash can where people occasionally leaned over to dump their half-eaten food.
The moment the speeches ended I flew out the door and down the stairs, lighting a cigarette halfway through the exit. Being introverted requires constant exit strategies from social situations and in California the cigarette is the perfect way to grab a few moments away from the crowd. So I paced and smoked for five minutes before heading back into the fray. The cheap wine was flowing in the party room and I was immediately accosted by three of those “I smoke when I drink” people. I can handle small groups and I smoke really cheap cigarettes, so I decided that joining them for another outside retreat would be no problem.
After our cigarettes, we all went back and people went in search of their rides. We split into two groups, each going separate places for dinner before meeting for drinks later. Now, the other two people in my group were also newbies in the grad school scene, so we made a good little trio. There was one little problem, though. One of the guys had not eaten lunch and had drank a few too many glasses of cheap wine during the reception. We were standing right next to a group of professors when he began to rail on quite loudly about citing sources, saying things like, “Why do I have to use endnotes, it’s a fucking waste of time, it’s fucking busy work” and other such things. Not wanting to become guilty by association, I herded the other two out of the building before the one could make any more disparaging remarks about the Chicago Manual of Style.
We went out to a fake Italian restaurant for dinner where our drunken companion complained about chain restaurants, capitalism and Republicans (like me.) I decided that I did not want to be out until two in the morning so I went home early with the excuse that my grandmother was visiting the next day and I had to clean the apartment. I silently vowed that next year I would leave town early.