A treatise on traditions and stealing the T

I feel like this post has become a long time coming, but until now, it would have been nothing but the grouchy ramblings of an alumna who probably spent a little too long at Tech. But with the recent “Keep the T in Tech” campaign and the Institute and SGA’s “T Amnesty Day” and its “display” of the “real T tradition” (which, by the way, was NOT the real T tradition), I may still be grouchy and rambling, but at least its timely grouchy rambling.

The evolution of a tradition

In 2005, two of the Ts on Tech tower went out (by accident, as far as I know).

To start with, the assertion by Tech’s administration that stealing Ts that aren’t on Tech Tower is not part of the “real tradition” is, to be blunt, kind of BS. Traditions evolve. They start out as one thing, and as circumstances change, the tradition changes to suit the circumstances. That’s kind of the point. But to that end, the evolution of a tradition almost always has to happen naturally. It never works so well when it’s forced, and once it goes one way, it’s really hard to retcon it to your liking. You’d think Tech would have learned its lesson when a “diversity committee” tried to make “Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech” more politically correct or the short-lived campaign to remove the reference to beer in the Budweiser Song. (On that note, it’s Skiles Walkway, not Tech Walkway. When you say Tech Walkway, no one knows what you’re talking about.) Forced memes don’t catch on.

For those of you reading who are not exactly well-versed in Georgia Tech’s many traditions, one of the most visible is stealing the T. While the tradition originally only focused on the east-facing T on Tech Tower, as the Institute began to crack down on students attempting or succeeding at the prank, the tradition evolved to include stealing more or less any physical T on campus. While it was customary for whoever stole the T from Tech Tower to return the pilfered consonant and take a light punishment with a wink and a nod, the last time it was stolen in 1999, the Institute threatened harsh punishment toward anyone found responsible. Thus, that T has yet to be returned, and I have it on good authority that the T spent some time masquerading as a coffee table and will be returned once the statute of limitations on its theft have run out. In 2001, three students were successful in removing the north-facing T from its mount, but were caught after they had triggered an alarm. Two of the involved students were suspended for their involvement.

It was at this point where the original tradition and the new tradition that evolved diverged. Students who stole Ts off the sides of buildings and off of campus signs began keeping them as trophies. The theft of Ts saw an uptick in late 2001 as a group of students, unhappy with being moved from their dorm mid-year due to renovations, stole 32 Ts around campus over the course of two nights. This likely popularized the activity of swiping Ts that were not attached to Tech Tower, and has been a part of life on campus ever since. (As a side note, when I was a freshman in 2003, I went to a party hosted by a guy who had at least a dozen Ts gained from the 2001 T-stealing spree. He had them in a drawer in the kitchen.)

On keeping the spirit of a tradition

Sometime toward the end of my undergrad, Tech started moving away from putting names on the actual buildings toward a uniform stand-alone sign system using vinyl letters. I always figured they moved toward this system to save on the costs of the theft of physical Ts from buildings. It wasn’t long before students started peeling or scraping the vinyl Ts from these signs, as well. And it’s with this evolution of the tradition that I really have to draw the line between things done in the spirit of stealing the actual T and pointless obnoxious vandalism.

When you scrape a T off a sign, you neither have a good, physical trophy, nor do you have something that you could return in still-usable condition–both significant components of the original T tradition. Another significant component of the original T tradition is actually considered an unofficial tradition on its own: climbing, or attempting to reach the roof of a campus building or the highest occupiable space on other campus structures. (Disclaimer: climbing can be hazardous to your bodily integrity.) Taking all of that into account, scraping Ts off of signs is just kind of silly. There’s no challenge. There’s really nothing to show for it. Congratulations, you get a sticker. That might have been exciting when you were six, but now it’s kind of lame. So if you really want to keep with the spirit of tradition, if you want to steal a T, at least steal one that would hurt if you threw it at someone.

As for the recent “display” of the “real tradition,” while I and many other alumni have an appreciation for the gesture, we do take some offense to calling it the “real tradition.” If you want to make an annual “dimming of the Ts” part of the tradition (maybe by doing it during T Amnesty Day/Week–more on that in a minute) or incorporate it into some other tradition (like maybe Dead Week, as a morale booster) that would be cool. But don’t try to pass off a cheap imitation as the real thing.

Seeking compromise

I understand where Tech is coming from. T theft costs money. I don’t dispute that. Figures from the Institute peg the cost of T theft at $100,000 in the past year. The vinyl Ts likely cost much less to replace than any physical ones. I’ve heard that maintenance keeps a stockpile of spares. The bulk of the cost is in getting the replacement physical Ts manufactured. The T amnesty day, where students could return pilfered Ts (supposedly) without fear of reprisal, probably allowed the school to recoup a few thousand dollars in missing Ts. Returning a stolen T with a wink and a nod is a part of the original tradition.

I feel like there’s an opportunity here for compromise between the Institute’s financial concerns and its concerns for the appearance of the campus, and the inevitable continuation of the evolved T theft tradition. A few weeks ago, the Technique reported that two students who stole Ts from the Architecture building were suspended upon confessing and returning the stolen letters. The students are appealing the decision, but regardless of the outcome, suspending students who come forward and return Ts of their own accord should not be punished as harshly as someone without the testicular fortitude to take responsibility for their actions. At a maximum, the student(s) responsible should be fined the cost of replacing and reinstalling the Ts that they stole, and possibly be placed on some kind of disciplinary probation. Students who do not come forward and are caught with a missing T in their possession (or are caught in the act) should be subject to harsher penalties up to and including suspension on top of the repayment of any damages caused. T amnesty day was a good idea, and should continue as an annual event. Maybe even make it a week. Successful thefts of the Ts from Tech Tower should be punished in a similar manner. (Unsuccessful attempts, however, should be punished as the failures that they are. Take that as you will.)

I feel that this or a similar system of punishment surrounding T theft will still be enough to discourage widespread theft and attempts on Tech Tower, but it will also remain in the spirit of the “real” tradition. A stiff enough financial penalty is a pretty good deterrent, especially when it’s enforced. Also, instituting a system of fines for T theft should help the institute recoup some of the costs associated with re-manufacturing and/or re-installing stolen Ts. As for the Ts being scraped off of signs, I figure they cost less to replace (and it might be harder to actually catch someone), but just for the sake of subsidy, let’s set the fine for any T at the same amount. But seriously, students (and recent alumni)–stop with the T-scraping, already. You’re not cute.

This, of course, is just a rough proposal of one way to deal with T theft that both doesn’t completely destroy the tradition that has evolved and helps it get back to its roots.

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