Pep Rally Generations

A photo from the slide show on the front page of the Saint Ignatius web site celebrating Bob Newhart's pep rally appearance on Friday, October 21: Newhart poses with members of Harlequins, the Ignatius theater group, some of them dressed up as elves.

On Friday we had a pep rally at Saint Ignatius.  It was different than any pep rally I remember in my nine years at the school.

First, you have to understand that many of the students do not think that Ignatius is much of a sports school or a school with much school spirit—even though something like two-thirds of the students participate on a sports team at some point during the school year and pep rallies seem to be very important to the students.  When students choose to attend Ignatius, they sometimes seem to do so with an attitude or understanding that they are giving up part of the high school experience that they would be getting at, say, the suburban public schools in the towns where they live.  They measure our sports—and our pep rallies—against what they know or imagine happens at schools like Oak Park-River Forest, Hinsdale Central, Lyons Township, Evanston, New Trier, or even Loyola Academy.

So when Ignatius has its pep rally each season, there seems to be at least a small feeling that it is a pretend or a faux rally.

Case in point:  This year the rally organizers distributed to the entire student body laminated “lanyard” cards with the words to the school fight song.  This was a very good idea because so few students know the words to the school fight song.  Even with the words handy, I can’t say that the singing of the fight song was a big highlight of Friday’s pep rally, because there did not seem to be a lot of familiarity with how the words exactly fit the music played by the school’s pep band.

In the senior journalism class that I teach, students have been quite clear in recent weeks about various issues surrounding this year’s homecoming and pep rally plans as they have been arranged by the school administrators, in conjunction with the Student Council.  For one thing, the Homecoming dance was moved to a much later date in the fall season than in past years.  Students had heard various rumors about the reason for the change.  The date has to be coordinated with the schedule of the football team.  According to my students, the best possible date for homecoming this year conflicted with the previously scheduled date for the President’s Dinner, one reason for the later date in October.

But I had suggested a different reason for the late date, based on my own sources:  Ignatius alumnus Bob Newhart’s visit to Chicago for a one-night comedy performance at the Chicago Theater—and a visit to Ignatius while he was in town.

It is not clear whether this is the beginning of a new tradition, but the 2011 Homecoming Pep Rally was arranged in part as a celebration of the return to Saint Ignatius for comedian Bob Newhart, an Ignatius graduate from the class of 1947.   The Newhart visit reminded me a little bit of homecoming at Northwestern University, where they designate an alumnus as a head parade marshal each year.  I remember when I was there from 1976-1980 that comedian Paul Lynde was the parade leader one year—and he got himself into some kind of trouble by insulting patrons at the local Burger King late on a weekend night.

Bob Newhart comported himself on his visit to Ignatius much more politely and graciously.  He arrived after the rally was already underway, but he entered the gym quietly and took a standing spot in the back.

He had missed the earlier introduction of the teams.  Each team gets its moment in the middle of the gym floor, waving to the crowd or doing something silly and vaguely scripted.  This is supposed to be a cross country blog, and so I should tell you that the boys cross country team wore tank tops and “short shorts.”  When introduced to the rally, they ran onto the floor—and then continued sprinting right into the stands where they took seats on the top row, a simple and understated approach.

Newhart had missed a rousing performance by the student “Step” group, 25 stomping strong and well-received by the crowd.   He had missed the “Star Spangled Banner,” sung by the crowd and played by the student pep band.  He had missed the Ignatius cheerleaders performance.

Newhart also missed the “main event” of the rally.  The Science Department took on the Religion Department in a tug of war.  The scientists won easily.  Their next challenge was the football team.  But unknown to the football players as they took their spots on the rope, some non-scientist recruits from the faculty and staff—some of our bigger men—snuck onto the faculty end of the rope.  It was not much of a contest.

After his arrival, Newhart watched attentively—and seemingly appreciatively—as the Harlequins student theater group performed a dramatic introduction.  Newhart had in fact been right on time for the Harlequins performance.  It has been clear in the week leading to the rally that the Ignatius students knew Newhart mainly from his turn as Papa Elf in the 2003 Will Farrell comedy, Elf.  The first of three Harlequins skits addressed the Elf theme, albeit indirectly, as it investigated the three most famous roles for elves—as shoemakers, as chocolate-chip cookie makers, and as toy makers in Santa’s shop.  A second skit reprised Newhart’s psychologist Bob Hartley character from the first “Bob Newhart Show,” set in Chicago.  One student took Newhart’s role, returning home from work to his apartment and another student playing Suzanne Pleshette’s role as Hartley’s wife, Emily; there was an extended and even funny monologue from Bob Hartley about his journey home through a Chicago blizzard.  The skit included a short visit from Howard Borden, a sidekick character as a neighbor who never seemed to leave the Hartleys alone.  In the final skit students staged an episode recreating the second “Newhart” show, in which the Newhart character Dick Loudon takes up the management of a Vermont inn.   The Ignatius skit put a student in the Loudon role as host of a local access television program about all things Vermont, which in this case featured a guest who had brought to the program the world’s smallest horse.

“How do you know for sure that this is the world’s smallest horse?” the student actor, playing the straight man Dick Loudon, dryly quizzes his guest.

“Well, just look at it,” said the student actor guest, waving the small stuffed animal pony at the crowd.

The skits got some laughs then and at a few other points—including, it seemed from my spot across the gym, polite chuckles from Newhart himself.

When Newhart got his turn at center stage, he stood behind a podium—and he was serious.  With his eye for social critique, he must have registered the strangely bizarre scene of American youth culture in front of him, and his remarks suggested he was watching and listening carefully.

One-thousand three hundred high school students sat in the bleachers on either side of the gym, most of them in maroon or gold t-shirts; on a Spirit day, the relaxed dress code does not require shirts with collars, and team gear—along with Homecoming 2011 t-shirts—is encouraged.  Football players, for example, wore their jerseys.  On the basketball court directly in front of Newhart, there was some empty space—but then on the edges sat the 25 or so floor leaders of the pep rally.  The girls wore leggings and crazy knee socks, short gym shorts, and t-shirts.  The leggings included gold, sparkly tights.  The boys wore the obligatory knee-length baggy shorts—maroon or gold—and a variety of Saint Ignatius tops, including tank tops, t-shirts, or hoodies.  Some boys wore sunglasses.  Some of the girls sat with scooters that they rolled around the court during the unstructured pep portions of the rally.  Some students carried school flags.  It has never been clear to me what style these looks are supposed to be; I suppose it is vaguely beach inspired, as well as pseudo-athletic and pseudo-sporty.

There were also uniformed cheerleaders on the floor near the stage.  Someone wore the school’s wolf costume, but the wolf was never very active during this pep rally, mainly standing around, it seemed.  Fifty or so teachers stood together at the back of the gym, some dressed for the everyday work day, but many wearing jeans on this dress-down Friday.  Father Michael Caruso, the school president who introduced Newhart, wore his standard collar, black dress pants, and jacket.  There were also a number of television video crews. (Link to Fox News coverage of the event.)

On the walls of the gym, hand-painted spirit signs celebrated “Wolfpack pride” and other school spirit phrases.

Finally, behind Newhart, was a stage with a rock and roll band.  But the band wore Navy uniforms.  They were called “Horizon,” and they operate out of the Great Lakes naval base in Waukegan, Illinois.  At various points of the pep rally they played covers of very appropriate pep rally songs like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” as well a bunch of songs that all the students seemed to recognize as they held their arms in the air and swayed side to side, singing along with the band during the choruses.  Horizon is part of a recruiting mission team for the Navy.  A recruiting rep was given a minute early in the rally to introduce the band and announce that he had materials about a career in the Navy available on a table outside the gym.

A faculty member standing beside me at that point in the rally had given me a nudge and asked, “Are we going to have commercial sponsors for all our pep rallies now?”

Faculty members, you can probably understand, generally look at all these events with amusement and bemusement.  But we generally wonder about the things the students have cooked up, and grumblers among us wonder how the school administrators allowed them to do these things.  It seems unlikely that the students themselves had invited the Navy’s rock and roll recruiting band.  My knowledgeable journalism students had in fact complained loudly the day before that the school had not hired a DJ, as they have done for other pep rallies.  Horizon was apparently a surprise for the students.

This is the scene that Newhart took in—and he responded generously and seriously, with a few moments of humor.

He began, of course, by poking fun at himself.  He noted that he could never attend the school today, because standards for admission are higher and his elementary school grades would never have gotten him admitted.  He spoke with respect and thanks for the Jesuits who taught him.  He did let one telling zinger slip when he thanked them, in part, for helping shape his somewhat “twisted” outlook on the world.

He acknowledged having been a Harlequins performer, chuckling to himself about how choosing and performing plays at what was then an all-boys school had been a challenge—“especially the romantic scenes.”

He also spoke a little bit about his own stint in the military after he was drafted during the Korean War.  It was his trip to his military training—his first time on a plane, he noted—where he discovered California weather that was the same all the time, so different from Chicago where you freeze in the winter and swelter in summer.  (He has lived in Beverly Hills a long time.)

He had been trained at Loyola University as an accountant, he acknowledged, and then he had gone to work for Glidden and United States Gypsum.  But he continued work as an actor in an Oak Park theater group.  He made a decision in the late 1950s to give himself a year to try and develop a career as a comedian.  Even when success did not come after a year, he gave himself another year, and then another.  He did not need to add that success finally had come.

His message to the students was sincere:  If there is something you love to do, give yourself a chance to do it because otherwise you will regret never having done so.

He said his goodbyes to the crowd, and then while he stood on the side and took some photographs with a group of men who were presumably old Ignatius classmates, the pep rally recommenced.  That was when, I think, Horizon did their Journey cover.

During their last song, the band’s lead singer invited the students to come out of the stands to dance.  There was a rush to the floor.  As a teacher, it was a moment that made me a little bit nervous about the safety of the students.  I waded into the crowd, just to be an adult among the boys who were jumping on each others’ backs.  School was momentarily out, it seemed.

No one got injured, as far as I could tell, and it all seemed good fun, finally.  The mosh pit in front of the stage thinned quickly when it was clear that school was indeed out and students were free to leave the gym.

Our cross country team had practice after the rally.  We started with a short meeting in my classroom.  I gave the boys a handout with a “mock meet” produced from Excel for the IHSA regional meet we would run the next day, using race times from the conference meets last week.  We would not be the favorite in the meet, but we had a chance to win if we continued the week to week improvement of the last month.  Then I showed them the 18-minute video TED lecture of Angela Duckworth, mentioned in my last post, about grit.  Our top boys are great examples of grit in terms of their work over their careers and their commitment to hard work, I told them.  But we needed to be grittier in races, pushing through the difficult moments when the racing gets hard.

Then the boys went for a short run.  They returned to campus and assembled at my minivan where they each got a bottle of Gatorade.  This is a daily ritual.  In the parking lot, the members of Horizon were climbing into an unmarked blue conversion van.  I had watched them earlier loading their equipment; they travel with their own stage and sound system.  And they are their own roadies, it seems.

I had my personal doubts, questions, and feelings about why a Navy recruiting mission had been featured at our pep rally.  But they were invited guests at our school.  I offered a wave and yelled a “Thank you” across the parking lot.  They nodded and waved back.

Peter Devitt, one of our team captains, joined in, yelling across the parking lot, “Thank you!”  So did a few other boys.

More quietly, Devitt spoke almost to himself: “And thank you for serving our country.”

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