The Dreaded “W”: A Story of Tradition and Lost Trust
As a sophomore a couple of years ago, I helped organize Chapel Sing and Homecoming activities for the independent freshmen. Every night for the first month or so of my sophomore year, we would meet behind the Sparks Center to practice the words of “Old Wabash” and go over what was expected of them as new Wabash men. I remember one night early on a freshman asking me what it really meant to get a W during Chapel Sing.
“It’s a mark of shame,” I replied. “It means you don’t care enough about Wabash to know the words to the song, and everyone will be able to see that once you get a W branded onto your shirt.”
“Will I be shunned?” he asked, naïvely.
“Yes,” I lied, “But you don’t have to worry about that because you’re not going to get one.”
He did wind up getting one, as did two more of my freshmen that year. But they quickly discovered, if they did not already know, that I had no intention of shunning them. “I know that you know the words,” I was sure to tell them. “You just messed up a little in the chapel. You got nervous. It happens a lot.”
My earlier claim that they would be shunned was made not so much in the spirit of malice as it was in the spirit of fun. It was what I’d been told, and what I believed, my freshman year. If I had not told them that failure in Chapel Sing had serious implications, they would not have taken Chapel Sing seriously. And had they not taken it seriously, they would not have had fun. We temporally suspended reality, as we often do at Wabash, for the sake of a grand game. There was nothing ungentlemanly about that. We had the freedom to do that. That was the way Wabash traditions worked my sophomore year.
Wabash has changed since then. It is not just the lack of alcohol at freshmen-related events—although that is the first thing most people think when they hear the phrase “Wabash has changed.” As a law-abiding citizen and a teetotaler, I don’t particularly mind its absence. No, the change is more atmospheric than alcoholic. Since the death of Johnny Smith a year ago this month, our sense of freedom has changed. Our sense of trust—our trust in the administration and the administration’s trust in us—has been lost.
This was very apparent in the lead up to this year’s Chapel Sing competition. As we approached Homecoming, a string of rumors began to spread across campus. There were various different incarnations, ranging from the notion that the painting of W’s would be banned from the competition, to the accusation that Dean Raters had somehow managed to ban the Sphinx Club itself. The rumored causes of the changes ranged from the idea that there would be lawyers in the audience, out to prove that Wabash students haze their freshmen, to the idea the Dean Raters was arbitrarily attempting to remake Wabash in his own kid-friendly vision. I already had a Phoenix interview with Dean Raters concerning the Student Judiciary scheduled for the week of Chapel Sing, and I decided to address the various rumors while I was speaking with him.
“To my knowledge, there aren’t changes,” he began after I asked him about the rumors, and then he confirmed that he had spoken with the Sphinx Club. He said that he expected the Sphinx Club “to emphasize with greater clarity” this year certain facts about Chapel Sing. Dean Raters wanted it to be clear that Chapel Sing was “a positive event” and “a gentlemanly event [that] demonstrates responsible citizenry.” On the issue of the dreaded W, he wanted to make certain that everyone knew that it was “a tally sheet” which helps the Sphinx Club keep track of everything during the chaos of the event.
When I asked what spurred these discussions with the Sphinx Club, Dean Raters claimed that such discussions happen every year, but added that “during last year’s tension, we’re foolish if we don’t reexamine what we’re doing, and so I think the Sphinx Club has reexamined what we’re doing.”
“You know,” he reflected, “the Chapel Sing I’ll see on Thursday will be similar but a whole lot different from the one I participated in, very different from the one that Dean Bambrey participated in as well. Similar but quite different from the one a student here five years ago participated in. It is an evolutionary event, but one where we need to again, as I mentioned in my note to the community: ‘at all times’ includes homecoming week—it includes Chapel Sing. And it includes preparation for Chapel Sing, so we all need to understand that. Sometimes we don’t.”
Finally, on the concern over the W’s, he said, “The potential problem is, that you got a W, and now, are you crushed? Are you ridiculed? And, more specifically, are you, even with the W, are you made to feel like you did something from a positive perspective? And I do think that’s where the Sphinx Club is going to be more intentional on Thursday.”
The Sphinx Club did seem more intentional, and seemed to be on the same page as Dean Raters, by the time Chapel Sing rolled around later that week.
“This is a positive event in which students and faculty new to the college can participate in traditions of the past and members of the community can gather to celebrate the higher standards and aspirations that Wabash has come to represent over the years,” Sphinx Club President Will Hoffman announced before the competition began. “Ws will be used by the Sphinx Club as a tally system to help determine which pledge class has mastered the song.”
The Journal Review also covered the story, quoting Sphinx Club member Steve Popovich as emphasizing that “the Ws on the shirts are a way of tallying scores.” The Bachelor ran pieces emphasizing how Chapel Sing is a positive event, and denouncing the rumors on campus as divisive. The smoke, disgusting photos, and “humping dog” that I was taunted with my freshman year were all removed from the competition. Photos featuring freshmen with Ws were not used on the Wabash College website. Freshmen who received Ws during the competition were given an opportunity to “redeem” themselves by singing the school song at Chapel the following week, after which they would be presented with a clean white t-shirt.
There was obviously something at issue with the W’s this fall. It is perhaps the nature of the post-Johnny Smith “new normal” at Wabash that we will never know what. Given this lack of evidence, it is difficult for me to make any judgments about this situation. So I won’t. But I can still make observations.
The situation with Chapel Sing this year highlights the lack of trust on our campus. The talks with the Sphinx Club highlight Dean Raters’s lack of trust in Wabash students to continue their own traditions in a gentlemanly manner. The fact that rumors about that meeting spread so quickly, and that so many were willing to believe the absolute worst, highlight the students’ lack of trust in Dean Raters. This is far from the ideal situation for Wabash.
Dean Raters used to tell a story about his experience at Wabash in 1982, when the Dayton Flyers football team came to town and used the Wabash mall as their own practice field. After receiving a call from a baseball teammate, Raters gathered together some Wabash men and traveled to the north side of campus. The Flyers, it seemed, were staying in the Lew Wallace in that night, and the men of Wabash wanted to get their revenge for team’s invasion of Wabash turf. The time was one o’clock in the morning, and the sound of “Old Wabash” filled the town of Crawfordsville just off campus, as the Little Giants crowded into the Lew Wallace parking lot, singing loudly. The singing was then mixed with taunts and jeers from both the Flyers and the Wallies.
Wabash Dean of Students Norman C. Moore then made his way to the Lew, unbeknownst to the singing students. He was not happy about the disturbance. He told all of the students to go home, or else. The students decided that going home was the better of those two options, and they made their way back to campus. On the way back, however, they were able to hear Dean Moore, from his office window, whisper, “Nice job, boys.”
I don’t know if that could happen at Wabash anymore. I don’t know if Wabash students could steal the Monon Bell from the DePauw campus anymore. I don’t know if I would tell my freshmen that a W is a mark of shame anymore. I don’t know if I’d yell at them to prepare them at Chapel Sing practice anymore. I don’t know if my idea of a gentleman lines up with Dean Raters’s idea of a gentleman. We live with uncertainty now.
In his first Chapel Talk as Dean of Students, Dean Raters claimed that his new job was all about balance. The point of his story about Dean Moore was balance—balance between “mercy and standards,” as he put it. That balance has been thrown off since the events of last year, and it has become more and more difficult to achieve. I don’t think that we have found it yet.
That is not to say that we won’t, or that one side or the other is particularly to blame for the current imbalance. Again, I don’t really know enough to blame. But here is an observation: The struggle of our College for the next few years—while I’m here, and after I’m graduated—will be to find that balance again. I hope that we do. Because what we had my sophomore year is sorely missed.