Widgets Magazine


Marks My Words: The S-Word – Part I

Last weekend, I went to Vegas for the second time in my life. The first time, I was in 4th grade and with my parents; this time I was in the company of several other 21 and 22-year-olds. While I arguably should have come away from the trip with a massive hangover, a new tattoo and an impromptu marriage, I instead came away with a bad cold and a myriad of thoughts about what it means to tell someone that you go to Stanford.

My story begins with the observation that people in Vegas like to meet each other. The process is facilitated by the fact that people in Vegas are drunk at almost every hour of the day, and this aptly named “liquid courage” allows them to make new friends (and friends) without inhibition. As a result, one is often asked, “Where are you from?”

It was 10 p.m. on the day of our arrival, and my friends and I were in the elevator of Caesars Palace. As we feverishly planned our departure for Tao, we chattered giddily and consequently made ourselves quite vulnerable to inquiries. When the person in the elevator asked us where we were from, we all froze. The milliseconds crept slowly by as we each wondered what to say. At long last I jumped in and said, “San Francisco!”

In Vegas, saying that you’re from San Francisco is perfectly innocuous. One club promoter responded with, “Oh, I used to live in the Bay!,” to which we chanted, “Yay Areaaa” (a la E-40). A polite employee of the Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club described her longing for the scenery of Monterey. A group of 40-year-old men from Orange County tried to strike up a friendly NorCal-SoCal rivalry even as they offered to make us drinks in their suite. We declined the offer.

Alas, two of my friends had a slip-up. One fateful night, over the craps table of our hotel, one of my friends answered the question all too specifically. “Where’re you from?” “Stanford.” Unfortunately, she was mockingly nicknamed “Stanford” for the rest of the night. “Hey, Stanford, have you been to Vegas before?” “Hey, Stanford, want a drink?” “Hey, Stanford…”

The next day, I blundered as well. My friends and I were strolling through the Bellagio when a club promoter accosted us. “Hey ladies, are you going out tonight?” “Uhhh…yeah?” He asked which clubs we had visited the night before, promptly dismissed them as “not really happening” and began to laud his club, The Bank, as our next destination. Then he gave us his card.

Looking at the name, I realized he was Arab and wondered if I should try and strike up a conversation with him with my limited formal Arabic skills. Seeing my gaze fixed stupidly on his business card, he finally jumped in and said, “I’m Egyptian.”

This was a big deal for two reasons: not only is Egypt a popular news item these days, but also I’m writing my senior honors thesis about patterns of marriage among Egyptian youth. So, like an idiot, I exclaimed, “That’s so cool! I’m writing my senior honors thesis about patterns of marriage amongst Egyptian youth!” For extra good measure, I told him that I was studying Arabic in college.

The guy gave me one of those “I really don’t care that you’re excited” looks and then said in a not-quite-joking tone, “What, are you smart or something?” I froze, again for a few long milliseconds, before I said, “Ha, no, I mean, I’m in college, so I’m writing a thesis, it’s not a big deal, um…” Note: the word Stanford never made an appearance, but I might as well have said it at that point.

His question has since stuck in my mind. If I were “smart,” would that be bad? If I go to Stanford, is that bad? In retrospect, telling him about my honors thesis was a mistake — it is never tactful to voluntarily demonstrate how smart or accomplished you may be. But does that demand that we as Stanford students should have to purposefully evade the “where’re you from” question? In an ideal world, no. In this world? Maybe.

I’ve come to accept that it is not something to make public. Revealing the Stanford connection — or dropping the “S bomb,” as some say — requires a lot of careful thought. From now on I know that my permanent default answer to the “where’re you from” question will be “San Francisco,” and, in many a case, it will be the most appropriate answer.

They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and I’d like to add an addendum: what is happening in your life might not want to be happening in Vegas…especially if what is happening in your life is your college career at an elite institution.

Miriam wants to know if you’ve ever had an uncomfortable encounter involving the S-word. Contact Miriam at her (not elitist) address, mirmarks@gmail.com.

  • smh

    We aren’t Harvard. I guess some people like to pretend we are *elite*, or are perceived as elite, in ways that go beyond the academic strength of our graduate programs, but the S-bomb has nothing approaching the cultural potency of the H-bomb.

  • masaru

    totally know what you mean. i always say something like, “oh i went to school out west… west coast you know. you know… stanford.” of course i don’t go to vegas all the time, so the other person quite often then says something like, oh my friend’s son/daughter went/is going to grad school there! do you know him/her??

  • kc’73

    Graduated in 1973 and struggled with when to use the S-word for years. Sometime in the mid-90s, I figured: if they can’t handle it, screw ’em.

  • Robin Thomas

    This drove me nuts for the longest time. I’d do the “Oh, I go to school in California” thing too. Eventually, though, it would come out that I went to Stanford, and then I just felt silly for trying so desperately to play it down.

    So now I say upfront, “I go to Stanford.” And when someone says, “Wow, you must be really smart!” (why would ANYONE ever say that?!), my response is a sarcastic, “Yeah, right, I’m pretty much the smartest person ever.” And so far, that’s dispelled all of the awkwardness.

  • student11

    I had thought about this before and heard people confused about the issue too, then I came to the conclusion that the best way to do it is to just answer, plainly and simply, if/when they ask. Think of the tone/attitude like this:

    Person: “Oh where do you go to school?”
    Person 2: “I go to Fresno State.”

    Just say it as it is. Not in a way that stresses it, not in a way that avoids the question, and not in a way that sounds excessively offhand. Just normal.

    I love how this problem only happens with students/alums. Parents, on the other hand, have no qualms about it. My mom, without even being asked where I go to college or even IF I go to college, will say, “My son goes to Stanford.” It’s been a few years and she still does that. haha

  • Zaywex

    If someone said “I’m white” would you say “Cool! I’m studying white youth marriage patterns”?
    If you’re reasonable, you would not.
    Unless he’s studying the same shit you’re studying, that’s pretty irrelevant to his life.
    Don’t treat him like a research subject because he happens in your target demographic. That was racist.