At the camp I have gone to—and eventually staffed—since I was nine years old, there is nothing to protect you from the unexpected, no matter who you are. Originally a member of the Youngest Girls cabin, I learned this instantaneously when I returned to my cabin one day to find it rendered inaccessible by hundreds of yards of dental floss strung strategically between bedposts. Only hours before, I had complained to my counselor about our prior exclusion from the prank wars as the tiniest group of females at camp. The floss, though a sure inconvenience, provided more than a little thrill. Another night, a golf cart decorated as a spaceship driven by a Darth Vader prowled the camp to invade and wake people up with its mechanical voice. Yet another day, the personnel director’s car was discovered parked in the dining hall at breakfast time, filled with packing peanuts and coated in industrial Saran Wrap.
In the Middle Girls cabin I later graduated to more nefarious attempts as a less vulnerable target—alarm clocks, set for different early hours, hidden in the ceiling rafters and behind the walls. Someone tied a fishing wire to our door to invisibly open and slam it from dozens of yards away. Also appearing from time to time and year to year: water balloons. Roof mattresses. Land shark. With this mischievery inspiring my thoughts anew each August, I grew up appreciative of a sense of humor along these lines—silly, surprising, not employing any particular logic except to look for something fun. A different Vermont institution, Ben and Jerry’s, prints magnets and shirts positing the converse: “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
College—with fewer rules regarding personal belongings than camp, along with creative university-trained minds, and the strange antics of almost adults—was a place I expected to carry some of the same urgency toward pranking. In Pegram as a freshman I witnessed this occasionally: the hilarious fire hazards of duct-taping a door and piling furniture and trash receptacles outside another to trap the unsuspecting dwellers; moving someone’s bed into the common room; elaborate Marketplace heists of multi-gallon ice cream containers. I hear stories from former members of my SLG of weeks-long Nerf wars where they feared the hallway even to go to the bathroom.
These cases, though, have been few and far between and seem to be getting less frequent as the years have gone on. Even the chances at mischief that are built into Duke’s unofficial graduation requirements are diluted by the fact that they’re not original, just tradition (illegal ones at that). And while inside jokes are rampant on this campus, they are trapped in the confines of websites and apps. We are too digital with our comments and our cleverness. Large displays or spaceships or high-velocity thefts are too committal to squeeze into this academic, extracurricular craze.
Old photos in Duke’s archives show a little more ambition, with decorated statues and massive banners and monstrous anti-Carolina undertakings. These ideas were so significant and so widely acknowledged that they’re in our library’s record books, waiting to be found by a procrastinating student with a little fun fire in them. This is why I see pranks as more than just a temporary laugh. Pranks are performatives in absence—like a letter, or a signature, leaving a record of someone’s self to be discovered. The passerby of a witty construction doesn’t have a source or a Twitter handle to attribute it to; it just has to stand on its own, funny, its creator receiving no credit. “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
But even without a culture of pranking around campus these days, students remain suspicious. The yearnings of mischief linger in us like those of a Youngest Girl. In a group text this week someone warned the group against wearing sweatpants, presumably because of the higher temperatures. But one cautious sophomore asked if it was because there was a prank happening to people wearing sweatpants. (To all those who stay cozy: beware.) If we stay a little nervous like this, hopefully some more people will take note of the need to be filled and fill our dorm rooms with packing peanuts and floss. That could mean we can’t get to our desks and our books, but we could all use a little break anyway.
Georgia Parke is a Trinity senior and Recess editor.