I always enjoy people-watching during the first week of school. The new students work hard to define themselves as individuals, asserting a style or personality with a touchingly awkward self-consciousness. The veterans flaunt their status by underplaying it, making the statement that they don't need to try because they've already got an identity.
It's the freshmen who are most interesting, because their position is marginal and there's so much riding on the way they establish themselves during these first days. Arriving in class or walking to the cafeteria, they give great care to image they project. Do they want to be known as weird? Cat-ear headband and a skunk backpack. A geek? Math in-joke t-shirts, home haircuts. Prom queen/potential sorority recruit? Makeover-style makeup, coiffed hair, collegiate t-shirt.
All those proposals for social identity find their way into my classroom, which is purportedly the home of budding intellectuals. What's interesting to me is that the intellectual label is thought to be compatible with any or all of these styles. I see the first-year students eyeing each other, wondering if the prom queen can really philosophize, the jock really write, the chess club geek really care. They're still in competitive mode, thinking that their choice of social niche will help them gain the inside track to enlightenment -- or perhaps to the favor of their professors.
But what I love about them is the collective effect. Arriving in class every day, walking down the halls of their dorm every day, seeing all these people so wrapped up in the ways they are different -- at some point, it clicks over and they realize that it is not their differences that define them, but their common pursuit. And then the asserting becomes less important, and the collaborating more so.