Homecoming and the Bonfire

by Zeke Turner | 10/13/06 5:00am

The Italians have an expression, "ci metterei la mano sul fuoco," which means "I would put my hand on the fire." I'm told that people use it when they are 100 percent sure of something. I think it's strange that at Dartmouth we have a very similar saying: "Touch the fire, freshmen." Although we might not really know why we tell the freshman to touch the fire or why we even have a fire every year, the bonfire is more than a century old and just as popular as ever. A keystone in the Dartmouth experience, the bonfire embodies many of the values that we share as a community, whether or not we're proud of these ethics.

Most freshmen realize the danger posed by the large pyre that grows in the middle of the Green every fall.

Yet we at Dartmouth have been lighting this sucker for over 100 years and we'll be running around it until the end of time, and for good reason.

First and foremost, the bonfire means Homecoming. Homecoming means alumni. And alumni means dollar signs. Bringing Dartmouth students of old back to Hanover under the auspices of tradition makes alumni sentimental. Aside from warming their hearts, this sentimentality lightens their pockets. Money from alumni keeps Dartmouth alive, which is worth the expense of the bonfire's threat.

However, all the money that the bonfire and the Homecoming festivities as a whole bring in is just a distraction from the harsh truth about the bonfire and it's purpose -- hazing a new class of freshmen into dear old Dartmouth. Even the Student Handbook spells out clearly that behavior as exemplified by the bonfire constitutes hazing. Inside the handbook you can find a definition of hazing -- a behavior that is strictly prohibited -- that is almost identical to the description of one of Dartmouth's perennially sanctioned and encouraged activities -- the Homecoming bonfire. Hazing is defined as any "situation created as part of initiation to or continued membership in a student organization." In the case of the bonfire, our first-years are proving they deserve membership to Dartmouth's largest organization, the student body. Hazing is further explained as any situation that "produces or could be expected to produce mental or physical discomfort, harm, or stress, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule..." But thousands of students chanting at the top of their lungs as their younger peers frantically run a half-marathon around a fire hot enough to melt your skin from five feet away wouldn't know anything about physical discomfort, stress or ridicule. Right?

The bonfire poses a perfectly logical and appropriate exception to a College policy that in my opinion is widely ignored anyway; student groups across the board initiate their newest members and the definition of hazing is broad enough that many groups could be accused of violating College policy. However, a certain amount of harassing and haranguing is necessary to tune freshmen up for four years in Hanover.

Students arrive year after year at Dartmouth with an irksome sense of entitlement. Living in old dormitories, waiting in line for anything -- namely pong and beer -- not setting trash cans on fire and non waste-free dining are all sneered at by Dartmouth's "most selective class ever," the z Class of 2010. No need to worry, the bonfire is only hours away and then unfounded senior-in-high-school egos will be trampled underfoot with the freshman who can't run fast enough, and surplus self-confidence will burn with the pine and kerosene.

Aside from the fundraising and the hazing, Homecoming is really about one moment. As the freshman run around the fire, thousands of Dartmouth students, past and present, crowd around to watch. Breath steaming in the night, the heat of the fire on the faces of countless alumni and students brings everyone back to their freshman year when they circled the flame. Whether their laps around the fire ended two or twenty years earlier, they remember it as if it were yesterday. "Worst class ever," the sons and daughters of Dartmouth will scream, wishing secretly that they could get close enough to touch the fire.

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