by Meredith Minter, class of 1984
Peering nervously ahead, the shades saw a river before them. As they lined up for the Stygian ferry, a piercing scream rose from the opposite shore. Unconcerned, Charon rowed on.
A devilish judge and jury appeared incongruously on the farther bank. Surveying the departed spirits, the judge addressed them in tones of majesty.
"Don't play with the river," she said. "You'll tear the crepe paper." Guiltily, the freshmen stepped back....
It was time for Rat Court, the culmination of freshmen hazing, most frequently comporting itself as the Right Honorable Supreme Court of Randolph-Macon, but occasionally assembling in Hades or Salem, this august body maintained one purpose throughout its forty-year existence: to give freshmen—and sophomores—a night to remember.
At first, it gave them a week. Rat Week, as it was called, was an eight-day extravaganza decreed by the Rules Board as a substitute for physical fights. Each day, freshmen wore curious clothes, personalized bibs, and unusual makeup.
Prohibitions differed from year to year, but usually included the following: no mail till after lunch, no visits to drug stores or the snack bar, and no use of Smith, then an important site of extra-curricular activity, except through the Rivermont entrance. Sophomores were addressed as "Miss," and books were carried in laundry bags.
The time span shortened over the years—first to three days, then to one day, then to an afternoon. In compensation the requirements became more stringent.
In addition to the rules above, freshmen carried candy for upperclassmen, greeted sophomores with elaborate speeches, ("Praise to thee, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent Odd"... "Most grandiloquent greetings to thee, oh exalted and omnipotent Even") and fixed their ratters breakfast in bed. They were at the command of sophomores throughout the ratting period.
Frequently a piece of memory work would be assigned. This was recited, prefaced by a low bow, when a sophomore said, "Sign Off!" The longest of these, required in 1937, took 36 seconds to recite.
"It's the oddest of all odd things!" it ran. "It seems even odder than the odd reason why the infinitely exalted Evens even allow the objectionable, obnoxious Odd Tree to ostentate itself and remain an odious obstacle offensive to the eminently egregious Evens. It may seem odd, but even so, I openly acknowledge the erroneous emptiness of Oddness, and it is my everlasting wish to be eventually called a loyal Even. This is my desire throughout eternity, so long as lasts the Honor of the Evens and the Evil of the Odds."
Sometimes, rats were ordered to jump up all steps, placing both feet firmly on each step, or going back one step for every two achieved. Essays were required on "Why I was fortunate enough to be an Odd." During World War II, freshmen dropped to the floor when sophomores yelled "Air Raid!" Once, rats waited on waitresses before breakfast.
Those freshmen hardy enough to disobey commands, or known to be class leaders, were hauled before Rat Court, which after 1940, was held in Presser. There they were accused of such heinous crimes as belief in the Great Pumpkin, consumption precious of metals (swallowing the mercury of a thermometer) and general imbecility. During trials, the defense attorney, called the Devil's Advocate in odd years, was conspicuous in her silence.
When imbecility was the charge, the prisoners would be quizzed from the bench. "What is the name of this college?" Caught up in the general spirit, the freshmen usually admitted ignorance. If they did not, judge would continue, "How many times a month may a freshman pull the fire alarm?" (One girl answered, "Until it stops ringing!") and so on.
Those convicted—and all accused were convicted—were sentenced to anything from kissing the Odd Tree to swimming the Styx, depending on whether realism or imagination was in vogue. At some courts, the convicts were dragged off to nameless horrors, which proved to consist of a backstage Coke party.
Rat Day ended in 1970, after brief half-life as R.A.T. Day year before—Renovated Tradition Day, that is. It was apparently mourned by no one. Yet its memory, once revived, clings with astonishing clarity.
Five black-clad justices, grim and immorable confront the assembly. There is a scream, and silence. The clerk brings down his gavel. Once again, Rat Court has begun....
Originally published in The Sundial on October 2, 1981 (Vol. 66, no. 4, p. 3)
This article is taken from "The Past Master," a column written by Meredith Minter Dixon, class of 1984, for the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College student newspaper, The Sundial. It is published here with her permission.
Mrs. Dixon has written an invaluable multi-volume set, Maconiana: A Social History of Randolph-Macon Woman's College. For additional information, please visit her author's page on Amazon.
Please contact Mrs. Dixon (dixonm at pobox dot com) if you have comments or questions about her articles.