The Plastic Age by Percy Marks - HTML preview

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After the Sanford-Raleigh game, the college seemed to be slowly dying. The boys held countless post-mortems over the game, explaining to each other just how it had been lost or how it could have been won. They watched the newspapers eagerly as the sport writers announced their choice for the so-called All American team. If Slade was on the team, the writer was conceded to "know his dope"; if Slade wasn't, the writer was a "dumbbell." But all this pseudoexcitement was merely picking at the covers; there was no real heart in it. Gradually the football talk died down; freshmen ceased to write themes about Sanford's great fighting spirit; sex and religion once more became predominant at the "bull sessions."
Studies, too, began to find a place in the sun. Hour examinations were coming, and most of the boys knew that they were miserably prepared. Lights were burning in fraternity houses and dormitories until late at night, and mighty little of their glow was shed on poker parties and crap games. The college had begun to study.
When Hugh finally calmed down and took stock, he was horrified and frightened to discover how far he was behind in all his work. He had done his lessons sketchily from day to day, but he really knew nothing about them, and he knew that he didn't. Since Morse's departure, he had loafed, trusting to luck and the knowledge he had gained in high school. So far he had escaped a summons from the dean, but he daily expected one, and the mere thought of hour examinations made him shiver. He studied hard for a week, succeeding only in getting gloriously confused and more frightened. The examinations proved to be easier than he had expected; he didn't fail in any of them, but he did not get a grade above a C.
The examination flurry passed, and the college was left cold. Nothing seemed to happen. The boys went to the movies every night, had a peanut fight, talked to the shadowy actors; they played cards, pool, and billiards, or shot craps; Saturday nights many of them went to a dance at Hastings, a small town five miles away; they held bull sessions and discussed everything under the sun and some things beyond it; they attended a performance of Shaw's "Candida" given by the Dramatic Society and voted it a "wet" show; and, incidentally, some of them studied. But, all in all, life was rather tepid, and most of the boys were merely marking time and waiting for Christmas vacation.
For Hugh the vacation came and went with a rush. It was glorious to get home again, glorious to see his father and mother, and, at first, glorious to see Helen Simpson. But Helen had begun to pall; her kisses hardly compensated for her conversation. She gave him a little feeling of guilt, too, which he tried to argue away. "Kissing isn't really wrong. Everybody pets; at least, Carl says they do. Helen likes it but...." Always that "but" intruded itself. "But it doesn't seem quite right when—I don't really love her." When he kissed her for the last time before returning to college, he had a distinct feeling of relief: well, that would be off his mind for a while, anyway.
It was a sober, quiet crowd of students—for the first time they were students— that returned to their desks after the vacation. The final examinations were ahead of them, less than a month away; and those examinations hung over their heads like the relentless, glittering blade of a guillotine. The boys studied. "College life" ceased; there was a brief period of education.
Of course, they did not desert the movies, and the snow and ice claimed them. Part of Indian Lake was scraped free of snow, and every clear afternoon hundreds of boys skated happily, explaining afterward that they had to have some exercise if they were going to be able to study. On those afternoons the lake was a pretty sight, zestful, alive with color. Many of the men wore blue sweaters, some of them brightly colored Mackinaws, all of them knitted toques. As soon as the cold weather arrived, the freshmen had been permitted to substitute blue toques with orange tassels for their "baby bonnets." The blue and orange stood out vividly against the white snow-covered hills, and the skates rang sharply as they cut the glare ice.
There was snow-shoeing, skiing, and sliding "to keep a fellow fit so that he could do good work in his exams," but much as the boys enjoyed the winter sports, a black pall hung over the college as the examination period drew nearer and nearer. The library, which had been virtually deserted all term, suddenly became crowded. Every afternoon and evening its big tables were filled with seriousfaced lads earnestly bending over books, making notes, running their fingers through their hair, occasionally looking up with dazed eyes, or twisting about miserably.
The tension grew greater and greater. The upper-classmen were quiet and businesslike, but most of the freshmen were frankly terrified. A few of them packed their trunks and slunk away, and a few more openly scorned the examinations and their frightened classmates; but they were the exceptions. All the buoyancy seemed gone out of the college; nothing was left but an intense strain. The dormitories were strangely quiet at night. There was no playing of golf in the hallways, no rolling of bats down the stairs, no shouting, no laughter; a man who made any noise was in danger of a serious beating. Even the greetings as the men passed each other on the campus were quiet and abstracted. They ceased to cut classes. Everybody attended, and everybody paid close attention even to the most tiresome instructors.
Studious seniors began to reap a harvest out of tutoring sections. The meetings were a dollar "a throw," and for another dollar a student could get a mimeographed outline of a course. But the tutoring sections were only for the "plutes" or the athletes, many of whom were subsidized by fraternities or alumni. Most of the students had to learn their own lessons; so they often banded together in small groups to make the task less arduous, finding some relief in sociability.
The study groups, quite properly called seminars, would have shocked many a worthy professor had he been able to attend one; but they were truly educative, and to many students inspiring. The professor had planted the seed of wisdom with them; it was at the seminars that they tried honestly, if somewhat hysterically and irreverently, to make it grow.
Hugh did most of his studying alone, fearing that the seminars would degenerate into bull sessions, as many of them did; but Carl insisted that he join one group that was going "to wipe up that goddamned English course to-night." There were only five men at the seminar, which met in Surrey 19, because Pudge Jamieson, who was "rating" an A in the course and was therefore an authority, said that he wouldn't come if there were any more. Pudge, as his nickname suggests, was plump. He was a round-faced, jovial youngster who learned everything with consummate ease, wrote with great fluency and sometimes real beauty, peered through his horn-rimmed spectacles amusedly at the world, and read every "smut" book that he could lay his hands on. His library of erotica was already famous throughout the college, his volumes of Balzac's "Droll Stories," Rabelais complete, "Mlle. de Maupin," Burton's "Arabian Nights," and the "Decameron" being in constant demand. He could tell literally hundreds of dirty stories, always having a new one on tap, always looking when he told it like a complacent cherub.
There were two other men in the seminar. Freddy Dickson, an earnest, anemic youth, seemed to be always striving for greater acceleration and never gaining it; or as Pudge put it, "The trouble with Freddy is that he's always shifting gears." Larry Stillwell, the last man, was a dark, handsome youth with exceedingly regular features, pomaded hair parted in the center and shining sleekly, fine teeth, and rich coloring: a "smooth" boy who prided himself on his conquests and the fact that he never got a grade above a C in his courses. There was no man in the freshman class with a finer mind, but he declined to study, declaring firmly that he could not waste his time acquiring impractical tastes for useless arts. "Now everybody shut up," said Pudge, seating himself in a big chair and laboriously crossing one leg over the other. "Put some more wood on the fire, Hugh, will you?"
Hugh stirred up the fire, piled on a log or so, and then returned to his chair, hoping against belief that something really would be accomplished in the seminar. All the boys, he excepted, were smoking, and all of them were lolling back in dangerously comfortable attitudes.
"We've got to get going," Pudge continued, "and we aren't going to get anything done if we just sit around and bull. I'm the prof, and I'm going to ask questions. Now, don't bull. If you don't know, just say, 'No soap,' and if you do know, shoot your dope." He grinned. "How's that for a rime?"
"Atta boy!" Carl exclaimed enthusiastically.
"Shut up! Now, the stuff we want to get at to-night is the poetry. No use spending any time on the composition. My prof said that we would have to write themes in the exam, but we can't do anything about that here. You're all getting by on your themes, anyway, aren't you?"
"Yeah," the listening quartet answered in unison, Larry Stillwell adding dubiously, "Well, I'm getting C's."
"Larry," said Carl in cold contempt, "you're a goddamn liar. I saw a B on one of your themes the other day and an A on another. What are you always pulling that low-brow stuff for?"
Larry had the grace to blush. "Aw," he explained in some confusion, "my prof's full of hooey. He doesn't know a C theme from an A one. He makes me sick. He—"
"Aw, shut up!" Freddy Dickson shouted. "Let's get going; let's get going. We gotta learn this poetry. Damn! I don't know anything about it. I didn't crack the book till two days ago."
Pudge took charge again. "Close your gabs, everybody," he commanded sternly. "There's no sense in going over the prose lit. You can do that better by yourselves. God knows I'm not going to waste my time telling you bone-heads what Carlyle means by a hero. If you don't know Odin from Mohammed by this time, you can roast in Dante's hell for all of me. Now listen; the prof said that they were going to make us place lines, and, of course, they'll expect us to know what the poems are about. Hell! how some of the boys are going to fox 'em." He paused to laugh. "Jim Hicks told me this afternoon that 'Philomela' was by Shakspere." The other boys did not understand the joke, but they all laughed heartily.
"Now," he went on, "I'll give you the name of a poem, and then you tell me what it's about and who wrote it."
He leafed rapidly through an anthology. "Carl, who wrote 'Kubla Khan'?" Carl puffed his pipe meditatively. "I'm going to fox you, Pudge," he said, frankly triumphant; "I know. Coleridge wrote it. It seems to be about a Jew who built a swell joint for a wild woman or something like that. I can't make much out of the damn thing."
"That's enough. Smack for Carl," said Pudge approvingly. "Smack" meant that the answer was satisfactory. "Freddy, who wrote 'La Belle Dame sans Merci'?" Freddy twisted in his chair, thumped his head with his knuckles, and finally announced with a groan of despair, "No soap."
"No soap."
"Well," drawled Larry, "I think Jawn Keats wrote it. It's one of those bedtime stories with a kick. A knight gets picked up by a jane. He puts her on his prancing steed and beats it for the tall timber. Keats isn't very plain about what happened there, but I suspect the worst. Anyhow, the knight woke up the next morning with an awful rotten taste in his mouth."
"Smack for Larry. Your turn, Carl. Who wrote 'The West Wind'?"
"You can't get me on that boy Masefield, Pudge. I know all his stuff. There isn't any story; it's just about the west wind, but it's a goddamn good poem. It's the cat's pajamas."
"You said it, Carl," Hugh chimed in, "but I like 'Sea Fever' better.
"I must go down to the seas again, To the lonely sea and the sky....
Gosh! that's hot stuff. 'August, 1914' 's a peach, too."
"Yeah," agreed Larry languidly; "I got a great kick when the prof read that in class. Masefield's all right. I wish we had more of his stuff and less of Milton. Lord Almighty, how I hate Milton! What th' hell do they have to give us that tripe for?" "Oh, let's get going," Freddy pleaded, running a nervous hand through his mouse-colored hair. "Shoot a question, Pudge."
"All right, Freddy." Pudge tried to smile wickedly but succeeded only in looking like a beaming cherub. "Tell us who wrote the 'Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.' Cripes! what a title!"
Freddy groaned. "I know that Wadsworth wrote it, but that is all that I do know about it."
"Wordsworth, Freddy," Carl corrected him. "Wordsworth. Henry W. Wordsworth." "Gee, Carl, thanks. I thought it was William."
There was a burst of laughter, and then Pudge explained. "It is William, Freddy. Don't let Peters razz you. Just for that, Carl, you tell what it's about." "No soap," said Carl decisively.
"I know," Hugh announced, excited and pleased.
"Well, it's this reincarnation business. Wordsworth thought you lived before you came on to this earth, and everything was fine when you were a baby but it got worse when you got older. That's about all. It's kinda bugs, but I like some of it." "It isn't bugs," Pudge contradicted flatly; "it's got sense. You do lose something as you grow older, but you gain something, too. Wordsworth admits that. It's a wonderful poem, and you're dumbbells if you can't see it." He was very serious as he turned the pages of the book and laid his pipe on the table at his elbow. "Now listen. This stanza has the dope for the whole poem." He read the famous stanza simply and effectively:
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day."
There was a moment's silence when he finished, and then Hugh said reverently: "That is beautiful. Read the last stanza, will you, Pudge?"
So Pudge read the last stanza, and then the boys got into an argument over the possible truth of the thesis of the poem. Freddy finally brought them back to the task in hand with his plaintive plea, "We've gotta get going." It was two o'clock in the morning when the seminar broke up, Hugh admitting to Carl after their visitors departed that he had not only learned a lot but that he had enjoyed the evening heartily.
The college grew quieter and quieter as the day for the examinations approached. There were seminars on everything, even on the best way to prepare cribs. Certain students with low grades and less honor would somehow gravitate together and discuss plans for "foxing the profs." Opinions differed. One man usually insisted that notes in the palm of the left hand were safe from detection, only to be met by the objection that they had to be written in ink, and if one's hand perspired, "and it was sure as hell to," nothing was left but an inky smear. Another held that a fellow could fasten a rubber band on his forearm and attach the notes to those, pulling them down when needed and then letting them snap back out of sight into safety. "But," one of the conspirators was sure to object, "what th' hell are you going to do if the band breaks?" Some of them insisted that notes placed in the inside of one's goloshes—all the students wore them but took them off in the examination-room—could be easily read. "Yeah, but the proctors are wise to that stunt." And so ad infinitum. Eventually all the "stunts" were used and many more. Not that all the students cheated. Everything considered, the percentage of cheaters was not great, but those who did cheat usually spent enough time evolving ingenious methods of preparing cribs and in preparing them to have learned their lessons honestly and well.
The night before the first examinations the campus was utterly quiet. Suddenly bedlam broke loose. Somehow every dormitory that contained freshmen became a madhouse at the same time. Hugh and Carl were in Surrey 19 earnestly studying. Freddy Dickson flung the door open and shouted hysterically, "The general science exam's out!"
Hugh and Carl whirled around in their desk-chairs.
"What?" They shouted together.
"Yeah! One of the fellows saw it. A girl that works at the press copied down the exam and gave it to him."
"What fellow? Where's the exam?"
"I don't know who the guy is, but Hubert Manning saw the exam."
Hugh and Carl were out of their chairs in an instant, and the three boys rushed out of Surrey in search of Manning. They found him in his room telling a mob of excited classmates that he hadn't seen the exam but that Harry Smithson had. Away went the crowd in search of Smithson, Carl and Hugh and Freddy in the midst of the excited, chattering lads. Smithson hadn't seen the exam, but he had heard that Puddy McCumber had a copy.... Freshmen were running up and down stairs in the dormitories, shouting, "Have you seen the exam?" No, nobody had seen the exam, but some of the boys had been told definitely what the questions were going to be. No two seemed to agree on the questions, but everybody copied them down and then rushed on to search for a bona fide copy. They hurried from dormitory to dormitory, constantly shouting the same question, "Have you seen the exam?" There were men in every dormitory with a new list of questions, which were hastily scratched into note-books by the eager seekers. Until midnight the excitement raged; then the campus quieted down as the freshmen began to study the long lists of questions.
"God!" said Carl as he scanned his list hopelessly, "these damn questions cover everything in the course and some things that I know damn well weren't in it. What a lot of nuts we were. Let's go to bed."
"Carl," Hugh wailed despondently, "I'm going to flunk that exam. I can't answer a tenth of these questions. I can't go to bed; I've got to study. Oh, Lord!" "Don't be a triple-plated jackass. Come on to bed. You'll just get woozy if you stay up any longer."
"All right," Hugh agreed wearily. He went to bed, but many of the boys stayed up and studied, some of them all night.
The examinations were held in the gymnasium. Hundreds of class-room chairs were set in even rows. Nothing else was there, not even the gymnasium apparatus. A few years earlier a wily student had sneaked into the gymnasium the night before an examination and written his notes on a dumbbell hanging on the wall. The next day he calmly chose the seat in front of the dumbbell—and proceeded to write a perfect examination. The annotated dumbbell was found later, and after that the walls were stripped clean of apparatus before the examinations began.
At a few minutes before nine the entire freshman class was grouped before the doors of the gymnasium, nervously talking, some of them glancing through their notes, others smoking—some of them so rapidly that the cigarettes seemed to melt, others walking up and down, muttering and mumbling; all of them so excited, so tense that they hardly knew what they were doing. Hugh was trying to think of a dozen answers to questions that popped into his head, and he couldn't think of anything.
Suddenly the doors were thrown open. Yelling, shoving each other about, fairly dancing in their eagerness and excitement, the freshmen rushed into the gymnasium. Hugh broke from the mob as quickly as possible, hurried to a chair, and snatched up a copy of the examination that was lying on its broad arm. At the first glance he thought that he could answer all the questions; a second glance revealed four that meant nothing to him. For a moment he was dizzy with hope and despair, and then, all at once, he felt quite calm. He pulled off his goloshes and prepared to go to work.
Within three minutes the noise had subsided. There was a rustling as the boys took off their baa-baa coats and goloshes, but after that there was no sound save the slow steps of the proctors pacing up and down the aisle. Once Hugh looked up, thinking desperately, almost seizing an idea that floated nebulous and necessary before him. A proctor that he knew caught his eye and smiled fatuously. Hugh did not smile back. He could have cried in his fury. The idea was gone forever.
Some of the students began to write immediately; some of them leaned back and stared at the ceiling; some of them chewed their pencils nervously; some of them leaned forward mercilessly pounding a knee; some of them kept running one or both hands through their hair; some of them wrote a little and then paused to gaze blankly before them or to tap their teeth with a pen or pencil: all of them were concentrating with an intensity that made the silence electric. That proctor's idiotic smile had thrown Hugh's thoughts into what seemed hopeless confusion, but a small incident almost immediately brought order and relief. The gymnasium cat was wandering around the rear of the gymnasium. It attracted the attention of several of the students—and of a proctor. Being very careful not to make any noise, he picked up the cat and started for the door. Almost instantly every student looked up; and then the stamping began. Four hundred freshmen stamped in rhythm to the proctor's steps. He Hushed violently, tried vainly to look unconcerned, and finally disappeared through the door with the cat. Hugh had stamped lustily and laughed in great glee at the proctor's confusion; then he returned to his work, completely at ease, his nervousness gone.
One hour passed, two hours. Still the freshmen wrote; still the proctors paced up and down. Suddenly a proctor paused, stared intently at a youth who was leaning forward in his chair, walked quickly to him, and picked up one of his goloshes. The next instant he had a piece of paper in his hand and was, walking down the gymnasium after beckoning to the boy to follow him. The boy shoved his feet into his goloshes, pulled on his baa-baa coat, and, his face white and strained, marched down the aisle. The proctor spoke a few words to him at the door. He nodded, opened the door, left the gymnasium—and five hours later the college. Thus the college for ten days: the better students moderately calm, the others cramming information into aching heads, drinking unbelievable quantities of coffee, sitting up, many of them, all night, attending seminars or tutoring sessions, working for long hours in the library, finally taking the examination, only to start a new nerve-racking grind in preparation for the next one.
If a student failed in a course, he received a "flunk notice" from the registrar's office within four days after the examination, so that four days after the last examination every student knew whether he had passed his courses or not. All those who failed to pass three courses were, as the students put it, "flunked out," or as the registrar put it, "their connection with the college was severed." Some of the flunkees took the news very casually, packed their trunks, sold their furniture, and departed; others frankly wept or hastened to their instructors to plead vainly that their grades be raised: all of them were required to leave Haydensville at once.
Hugh passed all of his courses but without distinction. His B in trigonometry did not give him great satisfaction inasmuch as he had received an A in exactly the same course in high school; nor was he particularly proud of his B in English, since he knew that with a little effort he could have "pulled" an A. The remainder of his grades were C's and D's, mostly D's. He felt almost as much ashamed as Freddy Dickson, who somehow hadn't "got going" and had been flunked out. Carl received nothing less than a C, and his record made Hugh more ashamed of his own. Carl never seemed to study, but he hadn't disgraced himself. Hugh spent many bitter hours thinking about his record. What would his folks think? Worse, what would they say? Finally he wrote to them:
Dear Mother and Dad:
I have just found out my grades. I think that they will be sent to you later. Well, I didn't flunk out but my record isn't so hot. Only two of my grades are any good. I got a B in English and Math but the others are all C's and D's. I know that you will be ashamed of me and I'm awfully sorry. I've thought of lots of excuses to write to you, but I guess I won't write them. I know that I didn't study hard enough. I had too much fun.
I promise you that I'll do better next time. I know that I can. Please don't scold me.
Lots of love,
All that his mother wrote in reply was, "Of course, you will do better next time." The kindness hurt dreadfully. Hugh wished that she had scolded him.