One of Rowan Lockwood's geology students came up to her shortly after the spring semester began.
"Professor Lockwood, do you know whose face is on the nickel?," the student asked with an impish grin.
"Ahh, Thomas Jefferson..." Lockwood replied, a little nonplussed.
"That's right!," said the student, pressing a five-cent piece in the professor's hand and running off.
Throughout the next few days, Lockwood received quite a few more nickels from students, delivered in similar fashion. The students were telling Lockwood that they knew she had been selected to receive the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award on Charter Day.
Charter Day is an annual tradition unique to William & Mary. Each February, we put on our academic regalia and gather together to hear the provost read the royal charter of 1693 by which William & Mary established the College in what was then the colony of Virginia. We also hear an address from a distinguished speaker; in 2009 it was U.S. Senator Jim Webb and in 2014 it was Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Another part of the Charter Day tradition is the presentation of three awards, all named for one of our most distinguished alumni. In addition to the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, which goes to a younger member of our faculty, we also present the Thomas Jefferson Award to a veteran faculty member and the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy to a senior student in math or the sciences.
"Nickeling" has become a tradition of its own within the greater Charter Day tradition. Winners of all the "TJs," as they're informally known, are announced at Charter Day. Recipients are notified beforehand, of course, to clear their calendar for the big day.
The names of the recipients of the Jefferson Awards are supposed to be closely held, but William & Mary isn't exactly the CIA and let's just say word leaks out in the weeks preceding Charter Day.
In a perfect world, the recipients (especially the faculty) would know they are winners before the students, but the world isn't perfect, is it? By Groundhog Day, the names of the forthcoming TJ award recipients are the worst-kept secret in Williamsburg. Still, a secret is a secret, and if you know that your professor or your classmate is going to get a TJ, the long and the short of it is that you're not supposed to know.
Because you're not supposed to know, you can't really congratulate them outright. But you can make sure you have some nickels with you before leaving your dorm room in the morning.