Oberlin Blogs

Rock on

December 3, 2009

Marsha Lynn Bragg

Every college and university has a set of traditions. Some are practiced faithfully and written and recorded in the archives. Others are less formal and perhaps take on a life of their own based on the initiative of a student or the general student body.

During my college years, I sought to engage in a few college traditions before I graduated. I'm not referring to the usual suspects--commencement, homecoming, a pep rally, or a spring festival--rather, traditions unique to the particular university I attended. And I did:

• Slid down the icy Jefferson Hill on a cafeteria tray after midnight in the middle of winter

• Participated in at least one public protest against an administrative policy or a town edict

• Put on some clown makeup, a bandanna, and a logo sweatshirt and marched in the annual Halloween parade along Court Street

• Hiked, skipped stones, and cooked out at Nelson-Kennedy Ledges

• Listened to (on more than one occasion) but didn't heckle Jeb, one of the traveling evangelists who barked Scriptures while preaching from a makeshift pulpit on the College Green

• Bought hot fresh bagels from one of the sidewalk vendors

• Had a mid-night (as in 3 a.m. or so) Greek dish at Souvlaki's, a popular--and cheap--greasy spoon open 24/7

• Did the Time Warp and flicked a Bic while watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show for the umpteenth time in the back row of the Athena

• Lay tummy down on the railroad tracks that cut through the South Green and felt the vibrations of the train as it approached campus (OK, I'll admit that was incredibly stupid. But that's by far not the worst thing I could have done--though it could have been the last.)

Some of you probably feel a similar yearning to do the wacky, the outlandish, or the usual hijinks that students before you have done. Others may feel compelled to follow a certain tradition based on family legacy ("my dad is an Obie and while here he did...") , or because it hasn't been done before.

Oberlin has a tradition that is not daring but endearing. It's probably not among the oldest but it is recurring. And I had a chance to experience this innocuous tradition first hand: Paint a rock on Tappan Square.

I'm sure you've noticed the three boulder-size rocks situated at points along the square. Each was strategically placed by the classes of 1882, 1898, and in honor of the college's founding fathers. The first such rock made its way to campus with the help of 39 students from the class of 1898, who pulled a seven-ton glacial rock out of Plum Creek and rolled it toward Tappan Square. This little prank occurred the night of December 3, coincidentally the date of the college's founding. To ensure its longevity on the square, the students presented the boulder to the college as a class gift, suggesting its geological significance was worth preserving. Each rock has a commemorative plaque, the words of which are long obscured by the mounds of paint.

This tradition of painting these rocks is about 40 years old, and since that time, these life-sized boulders have been subjected to regular graffiti: doused or carefully and artfully spray-painted messages that have announced memorials, congratulations, birthdays, anniversaries, marriage proposals, political statements, sporting events, or just a visual expression with no words at all.

Oberlin native Laura Paxton has a website called Oberlin Rocks to record the history and chronicle the messages that have been painted on the rocks over the years. A poll on her website asks visitors to select how many times they have painted one of the rocks. To date, of the 157 poll respondents, 72 percent have painted a rock at least once. What about you?

Granted, painting one of the historic rocks on Tappan Square may not be the most exhilarating experience that you can have here... and it may just be among the most short-lived, as no sooner than one message is done, another replaces it. But at least you can say you did it. I can. The proof is in the picture.

So what are you waiting for? Get busy. Buy a few cans of paint, some brushes, and have at it. Sure, it's more labor intensive than an e-mail, IM, or texting, but it's guaranteed to turn a few heads and etch a lasting memory.

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