Set fire to the red

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I come from a long tradition of blue and gold. My grandma and grandpa were both students here; so were my great aunt and uncle; so was my cousin; so was my aunt. And even those who didn’t choose to attend Cal were still avid fans of the school — my dad in particular, a UC Davis graduate, still swore allegiance to the Golden Bears.

When I was four years old, my dad took me to the Lair of the Golden Bear for the first time, just as his parents had taken him the generation before. The Lair is a Cal-sponsored summer family camp run by and for UC Berkeley students and alumni. Every summer for the next decade, nearly a dozen members of my extended family would block off the second week of July for our trip to Camp Gold. I would pack my duffel bag with every piece of Cal apparel I owned.

“What happens if I accidentally bring something red to wear?” I would ask my dad, already acutely aware that the Stanford color was something to be resented.

“Well, you’ll be fine,” he’d promise. “But if someone finds you wearing something red, they’ll take it from you and set it on fire.”

Every Wednesday night at the Lair, the staff — current UC students — would put on an original Cal-themed parody. There was The Wizard of Oski, Alice in LairLand, Oski and the Chocolate Factory and more. The story was always the same — the villainous Stanford students would steal Cal spirit at the Lair, and Oski would eventually defeat them, restoring Cal spirit for all.

I learned the Cal fight song before I learned how to read. The only time it was ever really acceptable to don the color red would be when my skin would turn red with rage at any disparagement of the Golden Bears. Cal students taught me how to make s’mores, paint and dive. They taught me love for the environment and pride in California.

So, you can only imagine my ecstasy the day I found out I would actually get to attend here.

Though I admit, I probably view Cal through blue-and-gold tinted glasses — not everything I had been taught to take pride in was so marvelous in reality. Students constantly suffer under intense, often unnecessary amounts of stress. The administration can be inaccessible at best, absurdly negligent and irresponsible at worst. Every now and then, our football team sometimes, occasionally loses one or two games.

In other words, there’s a whole lot not to like. And yet.

If anything, all of Cal’s flaws remind me not that my institution isn’t perfect, but that its long list of achievements and points of pride really have nothing to do with my love for this school. I didn’t fall in love with Cal’s ranking or its reputation — those weren’t really at the heart of the Golden Bear tradition I was raised on. Instead, I was in love with its spirit.

I was once walking home with a friend who had an important midterm the next day, and he felt grossly underprepared for it. We had started to regularly attend the football games together, and every time things looked bleak for the Bears, I’d see him look on hopelessly.

“You can’t give up on them yet,” I’d say earnestly. “Cal spirit can do anything.”

It was then the only thing I could think to say to him when his midterm looked similarly inauspicious.

He groaned at the emergence of the perky platitude. “Oski can’t save me this time,” he replied dejectedly.

“You’re right, Oski can’t save you,” I began. “But that’s because Cal spirit isn’t there” — I loosely gestured to the cosmos — “Cal spirit’s in here,” and I’d point to his heart.

Maybe it’s a crummy metaphor. But I think it gets across what’s so special about this place — not the place itself, but the people that populate it.

The Cal students who taught me how to tie-dye a T-shirt and craft the spookiest ghost story when I was less than 10 years old are the same ones who taught me how to stand up for what’s right and work toward the best version of myself as an adult. They coaxed me out of some of my mostly deeply rooted anxieties and taught me how to take risks. Cal students showed me how to make the most of opportunities, taught me about major social and political issues, proved to me that people are so much more than their major or their club or their background, changed my mind about what I wanted to do with my life.

Cal spirit can do anything, because Cal students can do anything. I had grown up hearing that all my life, but it wasn’t until I actually got here that I really knew it to be true.

Shannon O’Hara is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].