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Revealing Tradition At a S.Md. College

As Academic Pressures Increase, Students Undress to Decompress

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2004; Page C06

The flowers were blooming, the students had just turned in their senior theses, and yesterday offered the one last bit of sunshine before exams. Genevieve Parr and Kate Walters were a little nervous, but they admired the yellow flower senior Alun Oliver had painted on his chest, and the pink and white flowers he had tucked behind his ears.

"It's a spring thing," said Brad Newkirk, still in shorts but wearing a wreath of ivy in his hair. "I wanted to get a thousand buttons," he said -- referring to the little pins that say, "I completed my St. Mary's College [of Maryland final] project" -- "and just cover myself with them."

After an au naturel bicycle tour across the St. Mary's College campus, students take the traditional May Day plunge into the river. "It's a spring thing," one student said. (Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)

But no one was covered with anything for long yesterday, unless cowboy boots, knit caps or tube socks count. At noon every May Day, students gather in a college garden, peel off their clothes, hop on bikes, and pedal in a swift loop through campus, followed by throngs of cheering students.

Ah, spring.

May Day has been a celebration of spring and fertility for centuries, often observed by dancing around maypoles or picking flowers. And college students all over the country have their own creative ways of dealing with academic pressures and the freedom of being almost, but not quite, grown up.

University of Virginia students traditionally streak across campus. Princeton University had "nude Olympics." And at the University of Georgia one balmy evening in 1974, some 1,500 students lined up, stripped down to nothing, and ran through campus. Single file.

St. Mary's, a small public honors college with rolling greens, brick walkways and sailboats along the water, has its share of traditions. They throw shoes into a tree on campus, they go to seven secret spots as seniors to share stories and a drink, they throw one another into a pond on their birthdays.

"It's part of its charm," said Eileen Benjamin, a freshman. "It gives it its character."

They study a lot -- this is a place where the freshmen this year came with an average grade-point of 3.5 and SAT scores of 1,252 of a possible 1,600. But before they head off to grad school or the real world, they may just want to have one last taste of freedom.

"It's an adrenaline rush, a good way of bonding with your friends at school," said Amanda Christiansen, as she kicked off her slides, pulled her red skirt down and yanked her black tank top over her head. Her black bra hit the grass a second later.

They were off, laughing and yelling, some with frogs or flowers or handprints painted on their skin, pedaling furiously. Police had stopped traffic on Route 5, the road to campus and one of two main highways in St. Mary's County, and some locals had parked pickup trucks along the side to watch.

Pat and Patti Ashley were startled to see 35 or so naked bikers whiz by them; they live nearby but had never heard of the spontaneous, unsanctioned tradition. They weren't offended. "Oh, heavens no." Patti Ashley said. "We think it's wonderful."

It even reminded them of their own more carefree days. "Streaking was big in the '70s," Pat Ashley said.

A few people were genuinely shocked. "I think that is stupid," said Vianella Villar, an exchange student from Bordeaux. "We don't have it in France. Why do they do this?"

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