By Fay Asimakopoulos and Tamar KB
Spring break is a weird, even if starkingly predictable, tradition. It is what prom would look like if it happened in Vegas. It purports to be the ultimate marriage of innocence and debauchery: a time to hook up, do illegal substances, and lose your voice while wearing sparkly nail polish, a Punta Cana tourist t-shirt, and the less-than-endearing naivete of someone who has never had to clean up a dismantled hotel room. And more NT students than ever before are paying to go on it.
The most popular organizer, and the corporation likely responsible for bringing this thoroughly 90s Americana rite of passage to Canada, is S-Trip. Amusingly enough, S-Trip’s promotional materials tout the trip as an opportunity for PG-13 socializing mixed in with a copious amount of voluntourism and cultural exchange. In fact, S-Trip’s website contains testimonials from students who claim the volunteer experience helped them “pursue an international relations major at university”, or whose “life was changed!”.
A quick chat with an S-Trip office staff, under the pretence of being an interested student and her concerned mother left us with no doubts about the fact that most attendees don’t go on S-Trip in an attempt to build schools or rescue the Developing World from the jaws of poverty. As a student, we were told to “contact the school-wide S-Trip coordinator” for more information, and were reassured that there would be “a lot of partying, if [we] wanted that”. As a parent, calling at a later time to clarify safety concerns and ask about the educational value of the trip, we were told that “volunteer opportunities exist, I think” and that “there haven’t been too many safety issues in the past few years”. There might have been a shrug on the other side of the line. “You know your child.”The office staff sounded either thoroughly unprepared to provide rigorous data to back up his claims or humoured by the idea that a parent might want for their kids’ S-Trip experience to match that of their website prospectuses.
The verdict is clear. According to an NT grad who went to Punta Cana last year, “At the end of the day, S-Trip [is] just a huge party”.
Yet, if anecdotes are to be trusted, grad trip is more than just a huge party: it is a party where high schoolers can shatter all taboos, abandon all concern for public decency, and not be judged by their peers. A female grad and S-Trip veteran calls the experience “insane”, noting that “many of [her] friends lost their virginities on that trip, a sex tape was made without a girl’s consent, and people were nearly naked on the beach”. That year, a student overdosed on drugs and was left in the hospital in a coma long past the trip’s ending. This year, according to a Grade 12 male student, a “group of students managed to get their hands on cocaine”,
leading to another series of emergency room visits. A Grade 12 female student who went on the Punta Cana trip this year claims that the maids got fed up with students’ tendency to “leave condoms all over the floor” and left a note in Spanish imploring them to “enjoy [their] f****** time”.
So extreme was the behaviour of S-Trip attendees last year, that the Punta Cana hotel they went to has banned S-Trip from hosting another grad trip there. In a phone conversation with a receptionist, in which we expressed concerns that our family vacations might be interrupted by S-Trip, we were reassured that “there would be no S-Trip” in any of the hotel’s chains, and that all independent (non S-Trip) grad trip attendees would be restricted to a single hotel.
S-Trip represents a party where high schoolers can shatter all taboos, abandon all concern for public decency, and not be judged by their peers.
And while it is easy to sensationalize grad trip -- after all, others’ almost cinematic debauchery makes for rather satisfying gossip -- it is more difficult to understand why and how this tradition came about. It is customary for students around the world to rejoice about the final stretch of high school; however, there are few places, other than North America, where it is acceptable, if not expected, for that celebration to take the form of complete and utter abandon.
So why do we pay so much to make complete fools of ourselves? The answer is the same myth that drives North Americans to work long, corporate hours just for a timed get-away to a tropical vacation; it is the same reason why prom, a single dance at the end of the school year, is seen as the peak of one’s high school years; it is the same reason why people have Bachelor and Bachelorette parties before getting married. With mounting academic pressures, there is an anxiety about missing out -- on life experiences, childhood, and carelessness.
But this is Canada -- and so, we must get our solution in the form of a $3000, drug-addled week-long excursion. If one works hard, it is so that they can “play hard” during the weekends; moreover, the harder one works (to quote one NT student who went on S-Trip this year “I have been burning out for four straight years, and I think that I deserve this”), the more entitled one is to partying. And to party, one has to go away -- to a place where, according to our sensationalized perceptions, people have more joie de vivre, an exotic lifestyle, or both. It is a myopic, if not unfulfilling, mode of existence: it asserts not only that hard work is the only way that one can be entitled to happiness, but also that, once one has worked hard enough, they are entitled to doing anything that tickles their fancy -- as long as they can return to the monotone security of their Canadian home to continue working, unscathed, afterwards.
In the late 1960s, Glendon Swarthout’s book “Where The Boys Are” documented American soldiers’ summer getaways to North Carolina beaches, where they would party, womanizing and drinking heavily. It effectively ushered the idea of a spring break into the American consciousness. The students that go on S-Trip this year aren’t soldiers; the justification for their complete abandon is the appealing narrative that the harder they work, the harder they must play. All other concerns are secondary.