It’s your twenty-first birthday.
Realistically, the next step is probably stumbling to as many bars as drunkenly possible. The free drinks are flowing and you are the center of the universe.
Every fly on the wall is wishing you “Happy Birthday” and you are thanking them with extreme passion. That’s the third long island talking.
KOK to Dunkirk to Upstairs to Nick’s to...wait, what’s that one bar called? Oh yeah, Kilroys Sports. You actually did end up at Sports.
But why do we celebrate this age by drowning ourselves in liquor?
Surely this means we’re responsible adults now, right?
Ellen Sieber, chief curator at the Mathers Museum, views the twenty-first birthday celebration as a rite of passage into adulthood, modeled after the museum’s current exhibition, “Thoughts, Things, and Theories...What is Culture?”
“For it to be a rite, as in a ritual, there has to be actions and thoughts surrounding it,” Sieber says. “It doesn’t happen unless you make it happen.”
Rites occur when the community is involved, which depends on the scale and the culture.
Milestones like high school graduation in 1950s rural Indiana was deemed a big event because of the ritual.
In today’s society, there’s not one thing, but a combination of things to consider, she says. The lack of involvement of an entire community surrounding an individual’s birthday means that not everything is shared or celebrated as a whole community, but rather between smaller groupings within society.
“Making it happen,” as in encouraging the opportunity to drink, is something college students can and will do. But not everyone is keen on celebrating with you.
Sieber says that although society is allowing you to drink now, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to bar hop. The importance of repeated behavioral patterns and social activities that develop over time—going out, binging, etc.—turn it into a rite, instead of just another birthday.
Even post-graduation, celebrating 21 at your alma mater is too tempting to pass up. A lengthy drive from Wisconsin to Bloomington didn’t stop Rashmika Nedungadi, BAJ ’14, from visiting her old stomping grounds.
“I hadn’t been able to get into the typical Bloomington bars when I was a student,” she says.
“Going to KOK on your twenty-first birthday is a rite of passage for IU students, and one that I felt I needed to accomplish to have the full IU student experience.”
Celebrating in Wisconsin would have been more low-key, Nedungadi says, because going out until 3 a.m. is usually not socially acceptable in the real world.
Ideally, 21 should be an experience with peers, something that is essential in describing it as a rite, according to Sieber. Coming together to celebrate one’s legal ability to consume alcohol becomes a shared experience with peers, therefore becoming something society recognizes as a big event.
Obtaining your first driver’s license occurs once. Voting for the first time occurs once. Going out for a twenty-first birthday can become an all-week binge marathon.
“Just one more shot” turns into a challenge, and suddenly, going out on a Sunday night doesn’t seem wrong. Senior Kelsie Lane celebrated her twenty-first birthday this past December, and left no day unturned.
“I turned 21 at midnight on a Monday so that night wasn’t very exciting,” she says. “The actual day of my birthday was a Tuesday so my close friends and I watched the IUBB game upstairs at Nick’s and played ‘Sink the Biz.’ Then I went out every night that week.”
With a birthday sash in tow, Lane says the free drinks lasted two weeks. Similarly, Nedungadi says she didn’t pay for any drinks, but thinks she should wear a tiara every time she goes out now. Tiara or not, junior Michael DeDomenic says he got a lot of “Happy Birthday” wishes and “a few free shots.” A few free shots for the man, a surplus of free drinks for the women.
Those few free shots most likely lead into a slew of others, a trend among men celebrating twenty-first birthdays in a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
The study indicated that men showed a greater prediction error than women in consuming more alcohol than anticipated on their 21st. Of course, situational factors like this are associated with how much you anticipate to consume and how much you actually consume.
But it goes to show how ingrained drinking is on that day.
Maybe throwing on that sash and tiara will help derail the inevitable hangover the next day. Or what Lane says she wishes she would have done, to “drink more water.”
But once the festivities are over, a new social scene opens up for 21 newcomers. “Grabbing at drink” is no longer hypothetical, but the new phrase when seeing an old friend.
It’s also the last age to celebrate in anticipation before turning the big 3-0.
For Lane, 21 is a sign of maturity.
“Once you’re 21 you can grab drinks with coworkers after a long day or meet up at a bar to make a business deal,” she says. “Saying ‘Want to go get drinks?’ seems way cooler than ‘Let’s go get ice cream.’”
Talking over the best and worst drinks (Jersey Turnpike at KOK, trust us) before a night out becomes a new form of social currency. The repeated action of going to bars becomes a ritual like Sieber explained.
“Turning 21 may not mean much to some people,” she says, “but it means a lot in a community of people around that age, such as IU.”
Now it’s time to peel yourself out of Sports amongst the wall of sweaty bodies—your IU community of sweaty bodies. This is the community that’s seen campus outside of four dorm walls. Follow their lead.
Take off those shoes and walk home proudly, or make a pit-stop at B-Town Diner for a heaping plate of french fries. Chug a gallon or two of water and hit the bed.
This is 21.