by Joe Sheppard
With a little help from his friends...
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
Of Moonwalks and Volkswagens
The stories you are about to read are true. The names have been (mostly) omitted to protect the guilty. (See disclosure statement at the end.)
Picture it: Groton, early morning, a few years ago. A beautiful hillside overlooking a shimmering lagoon. Three hundred kids sitting in a theater at morning assembly. All their book bags are basking in the morning sun on the porch of the building…or so they think.
The doors open, the kids pour out into the sunlight to get their bags and…Wait! Where are their book bags? There’s nothing…nada…niente. The porch is completely empty. Then a smart kid remembers the poem someone just read on stage in the assembly. It was all about water, and boats and hills…A light bulb comes on in a brain. They run, as only kids can run, all the way down the hillside to the shimmering lagoon. And what do they see there? Six canoes, tied together in the middle of the pond—the shimmering was fake, by the way, it was all weeds and muck—and in the canoes? You guessed it: three hundred book bags, piled sky high. And the only way to get them was to wade through the weeds and the muck.
Senior pranks have been part of spring at LA ever since some headmaster first thundered, “Any students involved in senior pranks will not graduate with their class!” In reality, I’ve been to about fifty LA graduations and have never known anyone to be banished from the festivities for prankage.* I do remember one unfortunate boy in the spring of 1966 or ’67 who was suspended for hanging the Merit Flag from the top of a huge crane that had been brought in to help erect the steel for the Ferguson Building, but he’s the only one.
Some of the capers pulled off since then have been quite creative. Several, over the years, have involved the rotunda in the Schoolhouse. David Smith’s VW beetle ended up in there one spring morning, having been carried there by a bunch of large seniors in the middle of the night. Then there was the plan to fill the area floor to ceiling with balloons. As it turned out, however, the spirits were willing but the lungs were weak: we entered the Schoolhouse on the appointed morning only to find the rotunda barely ankle-deep—in wadded-up newspaper. B-O-R-I-N-G. Some years the seniors just can’t get it together.
With determination and teamwork, however, have come remarkable results. One of the most spectacular pranks of the century took place when Alan Whipple, who was the first librarian in the new MacDonald Library c. 1967, unlocked the room early one morning only to find that every single book was gone! Once the shock wore off, rage set in as only it could with Alan, and he spent much of the day lording it over a gang of abject seniors returning each volume to its proper place—down to the last Dewey Decimal point.
The urge to move big things from their usual place to another location—the more incongruous the better—has been a common thread over the years. Back when the faculty room in the schoolhouse was a central gathering place, we found it missing one morning, lovingly re-incarnated in the middle of the study hall. Another year, an even more ambitious group of seniors lugged the student desks from every classroom in the schoolhouse to the football field. I don’t remember the upshot of that one, but it probably involved another Whipplesque work crew.
For some reason, the remodeling of the Ferguson Building in 2006-2007 proved an unusually rich source of inspiration for pranksters. Demolition of the old Ginsburg Auditorium actually began in the spring of 2006, at which point morning assemblies were moved to the study hall for the duration. Things started happening early that spring, when students pouring out of the theater at the end of a Friday morning assembly found the stairs blocked up to the second landing — with hundreds of white balloons! The stairwells echoed like shooting ranges as 400 people beat their way through the bursting barrage.
An hour after assembly, no trace of the event remained. And no one ever knew who done it. Well, almost…
That plucky pack of perpetrators had bigger things than balloons on their minds, however. Tragically, their greatest stunt, to have been carried out in one of the last study-hall assemblies of the year, was foiled — by a doorway. One of the group had rented a full-size moonwalk, which was to be set up, in the wee hours of a Friday morning, in the middle of the cavernous hall, ready to add a little bounce to the ordinary school-assembly routine. Alas, when they went to move the ride into the room, its largest component, containing the blower, wouldn’t fit through the door. Assembly went on as usual; no one wondered why a few of the senior attendees were in a less-than-chipper mood.
VIVANT PUERILES LUDI!
* Current students take note: There’s always a first time!
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FULL DISCLOSURE CLAUSE: [This declaration is made by the principal parties solely because they are no longer on the Lawrence Academy payroll and therefore can’t get fired.] For many years, while we were the college counselors, Dick Jeffers and I would meet in closed-door session each spring with a small, self-selected group of seniors desirous of — how to put it? — helping to leave their class’s mark on the Academy before graduation. Young minds waxed creative, guided (and occasionally censored) by two middle-aged adults who, of their own admission, have never grown up. Memorable events grew out of these meetings, causing shock, consternation and ultimately laughter, but never damage.
We couldn’t possibly know about all the pranks, of course, but, for instance, the aforementioned balloons were blown up in the college office by a masked, SWAT-uniformed team that spent a sleepless Thursday night in the Ferguson balcony, keeping watch over a large cylinder of compressed air until its time came.
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This will be the last Shep’s Place until the fall. I wish you all a happy and restful summer.
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