When I was in university, we did things that, I am sure, would now get us expelled. I’m not talking here about inappropriate sexual conduct — though this was the seventies, so there was plenty of that. I’m talking about pranks. Or what today might be considered bullying or, in extreme cases, hazing. We probably considered it that too especially if we were on the receiving end but as long as no-one actually got hurt, everyone turned a blind eye to it. I wasn’t much of a participant and was never a victim (sometimes it pays to be shy and largely invisible) but I saw plenty.
Like the time they moved someone’s Volkswagen to the roof of a residence. Engineers love a challenge. Those kinds of things — the impersonal ones where no one was singled out (the car owner turned out to be in on it) or where it was rivalries between groups don’t seem so bad. The personal ones — where an individual was made to suffer — only encouraged those of us in the middle to stay unnoticed.
One memory sticks out. There was a freshman we referred to as ‘Grinnybear.” In part this was because he had a constant smile pasted on his face and in part it was because he was so like a teddy bear — and treated so by his well-to-do parents. They sent weekly care packages — candy (which he didn’t need), magazines and even condoms (which no one could believe he would ever possibly need). Grinnybear was a neat freak who happened to be rooming with a slob. He would lecture his cohabitant incessantly and became a target mostly because he refused to call anyone by their nicknames. He got pranked a lot — until he finally moved residences.
An example: Grinnybeat was a hypochondriac and took more supplements and medications than you can imagine. One of his daily rituals was to put drops up his nose, usually right before bed. One of the people on the floor one day poured out half the drops and replaced them with gin. His roommate knew and watched with gritted teeth as Grinnybear went a week before finally saying, eyes watering, Oh dear, I think my nose drops have fermented.
There were lots of other incidents — like the time someone had their entire room filled with crumpled newspaper. Sounds harmless enough but when I say filled I mean filled. This was in Truman house where all the doors had a window transom for ventilation. The entire house had taken against this guy and spent one weekend while he was away tossing balls of paper through the window. When he came back it had expanded so he couldn’t even get his door open. He had to take the hinges off before he could clean up.
It was all supposed to be good fun — but I sometimes wondered, even then, if the reason a fair percentage of kids didn’t come back after Christmas wasn’t just poor marks or homesickness but the failure of anyone — senior students, house dons, university staff — to protect them from the worst of the pranks.
But that’s ten minutes.