Editor's Note

Blackboard Jungle

A chalk drawing of a tiger outlasts five University presidents.

In his 1789 poem “The Tyger,” William Blake asks in several questions what kind of maker could create such a powerful predator: “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” In a Searle Chemistry Lab classroom in the 1970s, an unknown hand created the tiger seen above (and on the inside front cover), using white and orange chalk. Local knowledge tells us what order of being likely made this tiger—graduate student—but his or her name, and the other circumstances of its creation, remain open questions.

Chalk is for erasing, but the big chalk cat, astonishingly, survived 30 years in the open without being wiped away. It seems to have been treated with reverence. All who count themselves its friends feel gratitude and a little wonder that it survived its long endangered period, unprotected except by the chalked pleas that surrounded it: Do not wash. Save. Save. Save.

These were heeded until, not long before Searle was closed for renovation in 2007, someone “messed with one of the paws,” according to a chemistry department administrator. That was when the department decided to act. The tiger section was cut away from the rest of the blackboard and sent to Chicago Conservation, which restored the smudged paw, sprayed the board with a fixative, and covered the whole thing with plexiglass.

The chemistry department, which funded the preservation, has embraced the tiger as an icon. Today it hangs in the department chair’s reception area. A series of Wednesday lectures, the Tiger Talks, is named after it. But despite their best efforts to track down former faculty and students who might remember its appearance, department staff haven’t been able to identify the artist. They do note a possible clue, cleverly embedded—like a whimsy piece in a jigsaw puzzle—in the cat’s forehead. It’s the Chinese wang character, meaning “king.” Was the artist a Chinese national or a student of the language? Is the character supposed to be the name of the tiger, or its creator? No one knows.

Every week on the University campus, a small book’s worth of questions, answers, ideas, formulas, equations, vocabulary words, assignments, terms, diagrams, sketches, and doodles are written on and erased from its chalkboards and whiteboards. Nobody misses these marks when they’re gone, and nobody writes with any aspiration to permanence. They save that for books, papers, proposals, even graffiti carved into tables at the Medici. The tiger-maker probably never imagined his or her work would survive a week, let alone five University presidencies. Luckily, UChicagoans know something worth saving when they see it.

If you know about the tiger’s provenance, please drop a line to me at lademans@uchicago.edu.—L.D.

—Laura Demanski, AM’94

Photo by Dan Dry