Gruskin Gathers Over 800 Signatures to Resurrect Burning of the “A” Tradition

Student Council Member Yoni Gruskin ’07 has gathered over 800 signatures for a petition to bring back the burning of the “A” – an orientation tradition that the Dean of Students office banned four years ago. When tradition was still in effect, Blue Keys and prefects would run through the dorms, pounding on doors and shouting, “The Exies are coming!” The Blue Keys urged the groups of freshmen towards the Pine Knoll circle, frantically reiterating that Exeter students had invaded campus. A student, wearing red clothes and red war-paint, posed as the “Exie.” A group of Blue Keys in black led him out into the crowd. After placing the mock Exonian on the PKN stage, the Blue Keys poured gasoline over a large “A,” fashioned out of 2x4s. Students lit the “A” as PAPS looked on to insure safety. Students watched the flames until only the ashes of the “A” remained. Some form of the burning of the “A” had taken place at Andover since the 1950s. The administration discontinued the burning of the “A” in the summer of 2002. Dean of Students Marlys Edwards said that the tradition was banned primarily in response to concerns of some students and faculty that the practice too closely resembled the burning of crosses in the South. Safety concerns were also taken into account. The abolition of the burning of the “A” was one of several changes made to orientation in 2002 with the aim of shifting the focus of orientation procedures from the Blue Keys to the new students. Dean of Students Marlys Edwards said, “We are always looking for better ways to deal with orientation, and every year we tweak it a little….The burning of the “A” was never a very established tradition.” Yoni Gruskin ’07 launched a campaign last week to bring the tradition back. Gruskin said, “Not only do I want to bring back this… universally-loved tradition, but I would like to open up a dialogue with the administration… and I want [the administration] in the future to justify their decisions, and to consult, or even inform, the various intellectual student bodies on campus before making such changes.” Last week, Gruskin began collecting signatures for a petition to bring back the burning of the “A.” He is now less than 200 names away from his goal of 1000 students. A member of student council, Gruskin and his fellow councillors will present the petition to Ms. Edwards. Ms. Edwards said, “I do not expect the petition to have an effect because though the students have left, the same faculty who were initially concerned about the safety hazards are still here.” Though it is impossible to date the first burning of the “A,” a torch-lit walk and a post-football victory bonfire were longstanding Andover-Exeter rituals. Fred Stott ’36 recalls a torch-light parade through town with all the football players on a wagon after an Andover victory over Exeter. In later years, the parade moved to campus and a bonfire became the typical victory celebration. In the late 1950s the burning of the “A” emerged. On Friday nights before the Andover-Exeter football game, a torch-lit parade marched from the foot of the vista up to Samuel Phillips Hall. After hearing speeches from the football players and the coach and performing various cheers, the students burned the wooden “A” on the steps of Sam Phil. Chair of the English Department and former member of the PA Varsity Football Team Jonathan Stableford ’63 said, “Somebody can look back on [the tradition] and say it’s primitive or cultish, and I suppose it was in a way…but it was from a different mindset in a different era – it was based on tons of other traditions like that in college or elsewhere.” In the 1970s, however, schools everywhere saw a large decline in school spirit. Andover did not have a student body president, much less pep rallies. Also, as a result of girls entering the school system, the administration wanted to deemphasize sports. The 1970s Phillips Academy took a much less active interest in the Andover-Exeter football game, and consequently also in the burning of the “A.” In the early 1980s, the burning of the “A” reemerged as an important school event, though it was no longer focused on the Andover-Exeter football game. In its new incarnation, the burning of the “A” took place during new student orientation. Instructor in History and Social Sciences Lindsay Shaw ’94 recalls some Blue Keys bullying the freshmen, including forcing them to walk through bushes or climb over walls. Ms. Shaw said, “I’m not sure if current students really understand the tradition – as a ninth-grader, I remember it felt a little intimidating because they blindfolded us for the entire march to the bonfire so by the time you got there you were pretty disoriented and freaked out….It was a heavy emotional experience.” But some students feel that it was an important part of the orientation experience. “It was very exciting – a great first impression at Andover. It definitely built PA spirit. For the freshmen, it set the tone of the Andover-Exeter rivalry,” said one member of the Class of 2003.