What do shaving foam, glitter, flour, eggs, raw meat, talcum powder and silly string all have in common? At one point or another, all of them have been gleefully thrown over finalists leaving their last exam in the utterly bizarre Oxford tradition of trashing.
There’s a buzzing atmosphere at trashings. One May afternoon in first year I clustered with hundreds of others around the Merton Street exit of Exam Schools, waiting for my friend, one of the English finalists, to emerge. Everyone was eager to celebrate, especially those without exams of their own or, like me, with upcoming Prelims banished to the back of their mind. My friend came out, looking a little dazed. We popped the cork, stuck two party hats on her head and doused her in shaving foam, enveloping her in huge, sticky hugs. But once the finalists and their hangers-on had gone, Merton Street was still covered in the mess we’d made and, strangely enough, none of us came back to clear it up.
No-one quite knows when trashing as a tradition started — various articles quote a now-defunct Wikipedia page saying it began in the nineties — but it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. Colleges and the University have tried to put a stop to it, or at least limit its damage, in the last few years: foods and liquids have been banned, and the University Proctors state that students must not ‘throw, pour, spray, apply or use anything in a way that is intended or likely to injure anyone, damage (including defacing or destroying) any property, or cause litter’. Any trashing misconduct could earn students an £80 fine, or even lead to expulsion.
Given the high levels of poverty and homelessness in Oxford, asking students not to chuck perfectly edible food over their friends seems reasonable enough. Then there’s the cost of buying provisions in the first place, a booming industry if the queues trailing from Oxford’s party supply shops at twenty past twelve on exam days are anything to go by. It’s also worth noting that for some, trashing is just an unpleasant experience. Call me old-fashioned, but my idea of celebrating doesn’t involve immediately having to take a shower to stop myself from being turned into ready-made cake mix. Particularly for those with sensory issues, the prospect of being covered in various sticky substances while surrounded by a crowd of screaming people is unappealing at best, overwhelming at worst.
Calm down, you might say, it’s just a bit of fun. But what’s the point of trashing? Why do we celebrate the end of our friends’ exams by turning them into walking, talking, glittery foam-people? The ridicule? The profile pictures? The sheer, childlike glee of making a mess? There’s more than likely some element of performance: just as our Facebook feeds fill up with exhausted students clutching brown envelopes at the end of Hilary, so too do trashing pictures appear in May and June. Multiple angles, multiple friends to document our success; it’s the academic extension of the ‘Drinks with this one x’ Instagram post, a social competition as much as anything. For those without a close-knit friendship group, trashings can be a disheartening experience.
And I get it, I do. Once my finals are over this summer, I’m sure I’ll want to celebrate as much as anyone else. But celebrating and trashing don’t have to go hand in hand. Even with the ban on food and the move towards biodegradable products, trashing is still incredibly wasteful (if you don’t believe me, try walking past Exam Schools five minutes after the crowds clear). More than anything, I don’t want to make a mess that someone else has to clean up, just because I’m happy to be done with exams. By all means, celebrate with your friends: pop some champagne, wear a party hat, jump up and down screaming for ten minutes straight. Just don’t expect someone else to clean up your mess.