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Folklore & Dormroom Décor

"Mystery" the gnome


by Beth Hinson. Hinson is an International Studies student in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2007 class "Folklife in America."

I have decided to address a very personal topic, the folklore created by my roommates and me in the apartment we share on campus. A rich and diverse group of traditions, objects, and tales have been building up among the residents of my apartment since we first decided to live together. Traditions have been forming for a bout a year now, starting when we finalized the living arrangements in February. However, most of the significant folklore for the apartment was quickly created upon arrival. Traditions like movie nights were thrown together spontaneously. Other lore and oral traditions have arisen during different shared experiences, from funny moments, inside jokes, and pop culture references. A plethora of material lore also emerged, ranging from maps that decorate the common room walls, pictures on bedroom doors, and even a “Grow Your Own Gnome” kit. Most of the lore serves the purpose of unifying the apartment by recalling shared experiences or interests. Other articles serve to bridge the gap between dorm life and apartment living.

Because it is difficult to view this topic objectively, I have tried to include lots of input from my roommates, the other creators of the folklore. They were all enthusiastic to talk about the traditions we have created so far this year. While it is difficult to fully portray my roommate’s personalities since I know all of them at such length, I have tried to include important details where when necessary. While I am able to touch on much of the folklore crated for the apartment, there is still much more that cannot fit in this paper. Some stories and anecdotes could not be easily understood without significant prior knowledge of my roommates and me. I believe that the traditions I will describe are folklore because they are created and taught in an informal manner, and they are constantly changing. Even traditions that we picked up from another source have been personalized to our tastes and interests.

The actual apartment is fairly nondescript, it contains four bedrooms of identical size, two bathrooms, and a common kitchen and living room. It is located on campus, in West Quad or The Green Quad. The common room is in the middle of the apartment with two bedrooms and a bathroom on each side. These three smaller rooms are separated by a short hall. The apartment is handicapped accessible, so my side has an abnormally large bathroom with a fold down bench in the shower. There are five other apartments like this on the hall, and there are four floors in the building. Our building is the smallest in the Quad.

My roommates and I met in the freshman honors dorm, Maxcy College. One roommate, Katie, was also my friend in high school and roommate last year. The other girls lived on the floor above us. Unlike Maxcy, the social setting in the quad is very quiet and reserved. Although there are many common spaces, few people utilize them. Social interaction with neighbors is extremely limited. The only people who actively use the common areas are smokers and their friends. Unlike the hyper social freshman dorm we all lived in, neighbors did not make introductions at the beginning of the year, and the general trend remains that everyone keeps to themselves. The only neighbors we are familiar with are ones from Maxcy, or who we have encountered by chance outside of the apartment building.

We all decided to live together before winter break, last year. As we were all unfamiliar with how Honors housing assignments would work, everyone set their sights on an apartment on the Horseshoe, near all the other Maxcy residents. However this did not come to fruition and we ended up with the bottom of the barrel choices, West Quad or nothing. We took the spot in a quad but only begrudgingly. While this created some general bad feelings about the living situation at first, they were quickly overcome upon realizing all the advantageous things about living in this unfamiliar place. We were excited about the new building, Maxcy is fairly run down. Janet especially was excited for the emphasis on sustainable living.

At times the separation from friends and acquaintances from Maxcy has been trying, and it is easy to feel isolated when you’re across campus from everyone you knew last year. This has helped to create an even tighter sense of community among my roommates, frequent visitors, and myself. While the folklore I will discuss mostly involves my three roommates, Janet, Kathleen, and Katie, a small group of outside friends are also heavily involved and are familiar with our customs, traditions, and jokes.

My roommates are all sophomore liberal arts majors, a common theme that serves to unify the apartment and lots of its décor. Katie, my roommate from freshman year, is anthropology major and an art minor. Kathleen is an English major with a Spanish minor. Janet is a Latin-American Studies and Spanish major. Our mix of majors and interests has lead to an emphasis on studying and celebrating other cultures. Kathleen and Janet often speak Spanish with each other and insist on trying to speak it to Katie and me as well. This generally is to no avail as we both took German, which we rarely speak with each other.

Another common thread among my roommates is a political and social openness. Kathleen and I founded a group that is a campus affiliate of Planned Parenthood, and Katie is an officer in it. Janet is accepting of our group but has strong pro-life feelings. Political discussions are common, but they rarely become heated. We all define ourselves as feminists (most of the time for Janet) and everyone falls somewhere between liberal and moderate on the political spectrum. This openness towards political discussions is shared by most visitors and friends. We have created a small amount of feminist themed folklore, mainly off color jokes that are not politically corrects, mocking the beliefs that we all have. Similarly, politically incorrect jokes about race, religion, or class are common, because we all know that those feelings are not actually held by the joker.

The two most important traditions from the apartment are baking /cooking behavior and movie nights. Movie nights started last year in Maxcy, and were generally planned. This year they occur sporadically, often when multiple residents are trying to avoid doing work. There is little structure to movie nights and often people will move in and out of the room during the film. Frequently there are other activities going on during films, like knitting, painting (from our art major resident), studying, writing, coloring, or eating. With little emphasis on enjoying the movie it becomes predominately a social activity. Kathleen said that for her, some of the entertainment value in movie nights comes from the commentary made during the film and other reactions. Katie characterized movie nights as including these events: eating some kind of food, watching the movie, then viewing internet videos, and taking pictures. Movie nights have become such an important tradition that they made it into our roommate contract. Under noise in the apartment, we have listed that you can ask others to turn down the television, unless it is during a previously scheduled movie night. Janet pointed out that this rule was created after a particularly eventful viewing of High School Musical 2, which was the first big movie night in the apartment. Talking during movies is encouraged. It is almost always acceptable to make fun of the movie we are watching, unless it is someone’s favorite film.

Kathleen cited a viewing of Westside Story during which Janet was coming in and out, seeing only certain parts of the film, which she had never seen before. Her response to the racially charged film was to create sig