“You go to Albany?” I nod in response to the inquiry. “Pshh. Man, that’s burnt!”
“Burrnt.” I can’t help but feel slightly self-conscious as the chorus of this insult spreads across the room like wildfire. Tenors, altos, sopranos- everyone has joined in. The harmony is nauseating.
I became familiar with this chant early into this past summer, when I was one of the only Albany High School students working at a camp among a plethora of Berkeley High students. The first few times that I heard Albany being described as “burnt,” I laughed and marveled at the spirited agreements that it solicited from the people around me.
As time moved on, I began to take the insult personally. Was there truth to what these kids were saying?
During the first few weeks of school, “Burnt. Burnt. Burnt,” rang through my head ceaselessly. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. This had to be settled. I decided to meet some of my friends who attend Berkeley High School to delve further into the issue.
They all meet me at the beginning of lunchtime at BHS, and request that they remain anonymous for the purpose of this article.
“Burnt is lame. Burnt is boring. Burnt is stupid. Burnt sounds like a terrible time.” One of my Berkeley friends defines the word at my request.
“Burnt is when you go to a party and you’re the first one there. And there’s no alcohol.” another senior chimes in.
“Yeah, Albany is definitely burnt.”
“So, what makes Albany burnt?” I ask, trying not to sound too hasty or insecure.
“I don’t know, I guess it’s just kind of a vibe.”
I nod knowingly even though I am not entirely sure that I understand. As I stand in front of BHS, I watch swarms of kids pour out of the gates of the school. Mesmerized, I watch kids shoot forwards in straight lines toward the colorful cluster of affordable eateries on Shattuck Avenue.
“I think it’s the location. The location is just not prime.” My friend continues our conversation about Albany.
“And the kids are nerdy.”
“And sheltered.” As the lunch period nears its end, I ask the Berkeley students that we pass about their thoughts concerning Albany High,
“Lack of school spirit.”
“Lack of personality.”
About midway through my time on campus, I decide to flip the question, and ask the students about Berkeley High,
“Is Berkeley burnt, too?”
“No. BHS is iconic. We have rally day.”
“Yeah, people here are generally proud of our school.”
Soon, the bell rings and I part with my friend, who is concerned that I won’t be able to find my way out of Berkeley’s large campus. About ten minutes after I leave, she texts me to make sure that I have successfully navigated my way to the street.
As I depart from Berkeley High, I still don’t feel like I fully believe that Albany is “burnt,” as some BHS kids would put it. Upon my return to Albany, I decide to talk to my fellow AHS students about the issue,
“We have more and better personality than Berkeley High School,” Mira Weimer, an AHS senior, responds to a BHS student’s comment that Albany High has a “lack of personality.” Other students are less extreme in their views,
“I agree with a lot of [the BHS kids’ observations about Albany],” comments AHS junior, Quinn Brashares, “but I still definitely don’t think that Albany is burnt. Albany is home.” Through my discussions and surveys with Albany High students, I begin to find a pattern. I notice that a good portion of the students that I survey share similar opinions with Quinn.
My head rushes and I feel my heart expanding with a warm and beautiful feeling. Albany kids, much to my surprise and delight, are defending our school! Immediately, my mind races to the interviews that I held on the Berkeley campus, in which BHS students tore apart Albany with their words and celebrated the awesomeness of their own school. I soon realize that this isn’t a matter of whether or not one school is burnt; this is actually perfect example of a phenomena that has been present in humanity since far before schools existed. This a matter of tribal pride.
Berkeley kids are proud of Berkeley and will insist upon its dominance over other schools for the same reason that the Spartans fought the Romans, that sports fans scream and beat their chests at games, and that gangs often get in fights. Do we, as humans, naturally want to protect the groups of people with whom we feel united, whether it be against weapons or words? Tribal pride may very well be the reason that Albany kids are so quick to defend themselves once presented with insults from students at BHS- we can’t let our “tribe”, or school, be made vulnerable!
And most importantly, if tribal pride is the reason behind Berkeley kids’ defamation of Albany High School, should I have even paid attention to my co-workers this past summer? If the ratio of Berkeley to Albany students at my camp were switched so that AHS kids far outnumbered the Berkeley kids, would the Berkeley kids be subjected to the same, dreadful chorus that I was? With my newly-ignited tribal pride bubbling up inside of me, I fantasize about this hypothetical situation,
“Berkeley is burnt.”