Return to normalcy

The University has a tendency to make students weirder.

By Alison Howard

This might be a silly question coming from someone at the end of her first year—I mean, it’s really something I should have asked before getting here—but it’s a matter of great urgency: Does the University of Chicago make you weirder? I know what you must be thinking (“Why would anyone even suggest that?!?”), and I confess that the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind until the middle of winter quarter, when a longtime friend confronted me.

It happened entirely over Facebook, in response to a music video I had posted on her page. In a wall comment, my friend informed me that, while she hated to say it, I had verifiably grown in weirdness over the course of the school year. In her defense, the music video did feature band members sporting television heads, but it was a jarring response nonetheless. Now, with the prospect of a whole summer at home in the presence of friends and family who thought the words I used were too long and pretentious even before going to college, I’m terrified. What if I no longer know how to fit in with people who are not U of C students?

In my mind, I go over the things that have happened this past year that could have made me weirder: watching Y Tu Mamá También (both with my housemates and my Hum class), learning most of the lyrics to “Sunglasses at Night” (along with “Never Gonna Give You Up,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and Boney M’s “Rasputin”), and discussing with friends the socioeconomic implications of the “Sunglasses at Night” music video. But I can’t bring myself to think that these experiences are negative ones—something that is implied by the word “weird”—that they mean I have somehow gotten worse. Although I’m sure that some people might find them strange, these aren’t things I regret doing. There are good memories attached.

You see, since 11th-grade AP Stat, I’ve told myself that “normal” exists on a bell curve. I was very proud of myself for this observation, because it meant that normal didn’t really exist, that I didn’t need to feel inferior for not always fitting in. Normality is just a standard of behavior, completely dependent on context, that doesn’t necessarily need to be observed. Sure, there are some things, like decency, basic good hygiene, and an earnest smile, that everyone ought to observe. But that’s not the same as the music you listen to or the political opinions you have or the goofy things you say to your friends to elicit laughter and earnest smiles. Normal isn’t real, I don’t think, and weird is just a dirty word for different.

So maybe that means I have gotten weirder since coming to Chicago, in the sense that I’ve grown from—or added to—the person that my longtime friend last remembered. The U of C is a life-changing experience. I don’t want to be pretentious, or inaccessible, or talked about as weird, but I really want to be here. I like learning the things I’m learning and the silly conversations I have with my friends; I like the self-deprecating T-shirts, dollar shake days, and the “Overheard at UChicago” Facebook group. And these are things that lots of U of C students like—otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen this school.

Besides, I’m only a first year. I have much more time to get weirder—or rather, much more time to have new experiences, to grow, learn, and sing along with the hits of the ‘80s. I might be changing from who I used to be, but I would rather look forward earnestly than worry that I’m leaving someone better and more normal behind. I’m happy at the U of C.

I’m not qualified to write about whether it’s a good waste of money or whether the education is truly something special. (Although I am, in the act of picking this school, saying that it is.) But I can write with certainty that it feels right being here—that I hadn’t felt particularly weird until an outsider told me I was. So maybe my question is just a little too silly for an answer. The U of C is just a college—a wonderful college, of course—but certainly not a weirdness factory. What has changed is the context of my day-to-day existence, and this change has allowed me to become not necessarily weirder, but more like myself. So I guess this summer my high school friends are simply going to have to get to know me again.

Alison Howard is a first-year in the College.