It took me three tries to work up the courage to brave Festifall. Each time I neared the Diag I veered off, stalking the perimeter like a feral cat unused to such a dense population of people. After pathetically and shamefully hoping Festifall would get canceled a second time, I finally inched my way toward the dreaded spectacle. I was met with a cacophony of competing top-40 hits and students-turned-salesmen trying to lure me with buttons and the cheap candy that inevitably ends up languishing at the bottom of my backpack.
I tried to think like a fresh-faced freshman as opposed to the jaded junior I’ve become after years of casually signing up for countless listservs, and then accidentally hitting “Reply All” in order to request to be taken off. Sorry for the inadvertent listserv public shaming, anonymous student group. I think you guys are great.
But as soon as I got within shouting distance of any of the densely packed tables, I was bombarded with manipulative questions that I guess aren’t actually rhetorical. “Do you like art?” someone chirped at me when I accidentally made eye contact. I was trapped behind a herd of students, so I stuttered, “Uh … no,” before shamefully ducking my head and seeking shelter in Angell Hall.
After collecting my thoughts and doing a couple of improvised deep breathing exercises, I steeled my nerves and promised myself to actually try engaging with these well-meaning students. After all, I should be able to empathize with my flyer-wielding peers — I forewent my own duties to run a beloved student group’s booth in order to write about the Festifall experience.
I, too, have faced down the apathetic student who gave me a blank stare when I asked if he liked social justice (he didn’t, and by one student I mean, like, hundreds). I’ve watched with dismay and eventually rage as students graciously accepted my flyer and then turned around and trashed it.
Right. In. Front. Of. Me.
So I can sympathize with the dancers, activists, Harry Potter enthusiasts and the lame University-sponsored booths trying to draw people in with their S.W.A.G. in order to strengthen their numbers, raise awareness and so on. But Festifall has long since lost its sheen, congesting the Diag and its adjoining extremities, its flyers littering the ground and students trying to out-shout each other. So I decided to find a real freshman and try to recapture my own excitement for Festifall.
Unfortunately, I don’t know any freshmen and I’m not especially adept at spotting them. So I decided to track one down. I sauntered up to booths, trying to separate one of these vulnerable minors from the herd. I awkwardly peered behind one young man as I watched him scribble down “first year” on a clipboard. When I asked if he would like to be interviewed by a member of one of the best college newspapers in the country, he gave me the same wild-eyed, trapped look that had been my default face since I entered the fray that is Festifall. “Uh, no thanks,” he said before scudding away. I guess I deserved that.
I enlisted a few friends I met up with to help me find a freshman eager to give his or her take on Festifall and all of its bountiful offerings. Are they intimidated? Awe-struck by this exotic display? Are they here to collect some free stuff? Are they here to sign up for as many clubs as possible and find their niche in this vast world? What are their motives?
Standing at the edge of the Diag with a friend, I smiled — in what I imagined was an inviting way — at random people, tape recorder in hand, ready to collect hard data for my debut ethnographic work. People hurried past us. We got frustrated. So we took to politely asking (read: shouting) at random groups asking for freshmen. Shockingly, this was not an effective technique. Apparently, if you innocently inquire if someone is a freshman this is taken as an insult. One pair looked at my helpless friend, dragged into my research project because I emotionally blackmailed her, and sneered, “Uh no, we’re alumni.” Touché. Turns out, no one will actually admit to being a freshman and if you imply that an upperclassman is one (blasphemy!), he or she will try to make you cry for your honest mistake.
And I realized this was my problem. Being a freshman implies you’re young, innocent and wide-eyed. Instead of marveling at the sheer vastness of opportunities (and stickers … so many stickers!) the University of Michigan student body has to offer, I grumbled about how inconvenient it is, instead of remembering how wonderful and mysterious the University used to be. I glowered at the crowds like a townie trying to navigate Fart Fair — I mean, Art Fair. When I finally snapped out of my prematurely cynical funk, I realized Festifall is really a cool, quirky thing.
The Quidditch team was recreating a rousing match by having a guy don some gold American Apparel spandex and run around like a snitch. The blaring music from all directions is actually kind of uplifting if you take out your headphones. And you have to admire the dedication of students braving the rain and soggy sign-up sheets to promote their club or cause. Plus, the camaraderie created by such an atmosphere meant that groups like the College Socialists and the College Libertarians existed side-by-side in harmony, no treading on anyone.
And as Festifall participants and their devotees started to pack up, the sun finally streamed onto the Diag. My friends and I munched on free Jimmy John’s sandwiches and actually considered going to the Notre Dame pep rally. I think my heart grew three sizes larger that day. Sorry for ever doubting you, Festifall.