Testudo's nose and the hard lessons of entropy


IN FRONT of McKeldin Library, in the center of the University of Maryland College Park campus, is a giant turtle. It's not a real turtle; it's made from metal, and sits atop a stone pedestal. The name of the turtle is Testudo, and he's a sort of unofficial mascot of desperate students at the University.

A story that every College Park freshman hears is that rubbing Testudo's nose insures good luck on an upcoming test.

Like other freshmen, I snickered when I first heard this story nearly four years ago. Foolish superstition foisted off on new students -- that's what I thought at the time. How many seniors, I wondered, laughed to themselves as gullible new freshmen wandered by the silly-looking brass turtle and rubbed its nose?

Still, our orientation guide really seemed to believe the story. "You can always tell freshmen," she said, winking. "They don't give Testudo here a good rubdown. Freshmen will only pat the nose, a half-second touch at best. Seniors will really get into it; they'll try to pull the nose right off. They know, you see."

Three and a half years later: It's a cold December morning, a Saturday, and I'm going to my second final. Two more after this, and then one more semester, and I'll be out of here. On my way to the final, I pull off my glove and give Testudo's nose a good solid yank, rubbing the top and sides. I'm not, after all, a freshman. I know.

When you start college, you've got some crazy notions. Constant studying, you think, is the key to success; or, if you want to go a different route, constant partying will help you forget academic rigors.

In truth, neither works. Passing tests is mostly luck, test scores being not much more than artificial devices to divide, classify and group students. Students are at the mercy of an often-arbitrary bureaucracy.

It's not a stupid bureaucracy, though. Too many parties lead to failure as surely as too much studying leads to an overly stressful college life. A hungover student, barely awake and in a great deal of pain, is precisely the type of student the tests at College Park are designed to catch.

The sharp students quickly learn both these truths, and spend their undergraduate years in a state hovering between fear and elation. Elation -- at the realization that college is not difficult, not impossible, and with a little effort, a quiet and peaceful way to spend four years. And fear -- whenever tests, those arbitrary deciders of their future, roll around.

So, with each test -- for time, in college, is measured in "between-test days" -- students rub Testudo's nose a bit more vigorously. Why not? It can't hurt. Each develops his or her own beliefs about why Testudo might help; my own Testudo-worship involves the metallic smell a good nose-rubbing leaves on your fingers, a magical tribute to the gods of testing.

Once I read a book about entropy, that mysterious force that causes things to deteriorate with time. As a child, I always associated entropy with dirt. "Clean this room!" my mother would shout. "Reduce this &*%entropy, willya?"

My years as a student have seemed like a lesson in entropy. School itself, and grades in particular, seem less important than they did when I started. It's a deterioration -- not in the school's program, not in my work habits, but in my perception of the relationship between the two.

In a couple of months, I and my fellow seniors will graduate. We'll go on, and get jobs, and some of us will do great things, and the tests will fade and mean less and less. But perhaps our best accomplishment, the one that will mean the most to me, anyway, is the spit-and-shine polishing we gave Testudo's nose. The metal gleams on the tip, while the rest of the statue is a dirty brown. In some small way, my crop of classmates and I staved off entropy in that one small spot for four years.

D. A. Leary writes from Greenbelt.


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