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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Tales From the Gulag: 11 Things I Did Instead Of Studying For Finals

Nathaniel Haas |
May 17, 2014 | 9:44 p.m. PDT



1. noun, “the system of forced-labor camps in the Soviet Union.” 


2. noun, “The happiest place on earth!” 

-Joseph Stalin 

3. noun, “The dark and windowless room I found myself studying in for a few days at the end of my sophomore year.”   

Three stories under ground and fresh off a Starbucks strawberry refresher (rocket fuel) with my nose stuck in an economics book, I was struck by the earthquake. It was day three in the Gulag. It was a 3.3 at the epicenter 7 miles away, but my caffeinated hippocampus only processed one thing, and began to type:   

Gulag update #8: As if suffering two stories under ground beneath a library of concrete and books is not bad enough, THERE HAS BEEN AN EARTHQUAKE IN THE GULAG. REPEAT: THERE HAS BEEN AN EARTHQUAKE IN THE GULAG. But the shaking of the earth does not matter to those in the Gulag. Only work matters.

I had been periodically updating Facebook on my experiences in the study room, or as I had began to refer to it, the Gulag. For some reason, people with procrastination habits far more acute than mine actually read these updates. On Facebook, I’m a self confessed like-addict, which means more likes = more posts. People liked my Gulag updates. There was demand for what I was supplying, and even if I only knew that because I had been studying economics, I knew the Gulag updates must continue. Even if it meant that I stopped studying economics.

Rewind to three days before my chair started rocking, I found myself peacefully crafting a study plan when the Spirit of Troy, USC’s marching band, filled the library with earsplitting noise. 

USC marching band lines up outside the library at 10 PM and begins blasting "All I Do Is Win." I try and get the study room to do the "up down, up down" thing. No one moves. Welcome to the Gulag.

Literally, no one moved. Two hours later, this lack of motion convinced the computer system that runs the library (sort of creepy if you ask me) to turn the lights off in our room. 

Gulag update #1: Someone accidentally turns off all of the lights in the big study room. I unplug my headphones and start playing Avicii really loudly. A few girls three tables over laugh deliriously. A frat boy glares. Some things never change in the camp.

Apparently, no one at USC likes a dance party at midnight. Oh, wait. 

An hour later, just before the library closed at 2 am, the following happened: 

(Photo by Nathaniel Haas. Obviously.)
(Photo by Nathaniel Haas. Obviously.)


Gulag update #2: Surviving members of the study room are having a collective moment of silence. The Gulag has claimed its first victim.

Gulag spoiler alert – the Gulag hadn’t claimed anyone, but rather my friend across the room was kind enough to pretend he had fallen asleep. Moral of the story: the people didn’t care what life was actually like in the Gulag. Like those silly survival shows on the Discovery channel, the people wanted to see pain and suffering. And pain is what we gave them. 

Gulag update #3: Disaster strikes the study room when the frat boys in lounge 110A run past their reservation and are evicted by a very serious-looking group of grad students, who claim to have had a reservation on said room "for like... six months." The frat boys are not pleased. It is war in the Gulag.

This was seriously distracting and hilarious at the same time. That is all. 

Gulag update #4: Sitting at a tiny table. Girl I've never met in my life shows up and thumps Starbucks cup (with her name on it, which she is unaware of) + unholy amount of books all over the place. I look up and say, "Hello Sierra!" 15 minutes later, she's gone. Survival tactics in the Gulag. Bye, Felicia.

Gulag spoiler alert number two – her name wasn’t Sierra. It wasn’t Felicia, either. Though there is no privacy in the Gulag, her identity had to be protected from those out of the Gulag. 

Gulag update #5: Several people have asked what a “Gulag” is. I’m not going to tell them, because there is no education in the Gulag. Only work

Self-explanatory. Read some Russian history, people. 

Gulag update #6: Three dudes nearly wet themselves upon finding an open table, then realize that they’re sitting across from the table I have affectionately dubbed “the yoga pants patrol.” Eyes down, comrades. No staring in the Gulag.

Gulag spoiler number three – they didn’t actually wet themselves, and I have no idea how I could have known if they were “near” wetting themselves. That line was added for dramatic effect. And for more likes. 

Gulag update #7: Another collective moment of silence. The Gulag has claimed its second victim.

(Nathaniel Haas, Neon Tommy)
(Nathaniel Haas, Neon Tommy)


Unlike the poor fellow in #2, I didn’t ask this monkey to pose. Some dude two tables over, upset that his studying girlfriend was not fondling him as much as he was fondling her, decided to hang it in an effort to get her attention. Because, you know the old saying: “If she isn’t paying attention, hang a grumpy paper monkey from the ceiling."

Update #8 was the earthquake. In a moment of sleepy stupidity, I forgot Gulag Update #9 and went straight to #10. I pretended #9 had died in the Gulag. The people wanted to hear about pain and suffering. They didn’t want to hear about forgetfulness. 

Gulag update #10: The sun rises early in the Gulag. I did not rise with it. I have been joined in the camp by a hipster who I’m sure has put one sticker on his computer for each shower he has taken this year. Stickers include, “YOU ARE UNDER SURVEILLANCE” and “DEMOCRACYNOW.ORG.” I have moved tables. Not because of the smell, but because discussing such topics in the Gulag is punishable by death.

Gulag spoiler number four: I like democracy. Dear future employer reading my published works, democracy is good. Very good. I was being facetious. 

Gulag update #11: The last Gulag update. Today, I left the Gulag for the last time this semester. I passed the smelly hipster, the “yoga pants patrol,” the Gulag monkey, Sierra’s Starbucks cup, the frat boys in lounge 110A and a sleeping Ross Lindly. As I sat down in the dark and windowless room where I would take my Econ final, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. The light turned out to be a train. Some things never change in the Gulag.

And then I left the Gulag. I left the Gulag without looking back, and then I turned around and went back because I forgot my sweater.


Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore who suffered in the Gulag as he completed his sophomore year. Follow him on Twitter here; email him questions about his experience here



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