Behind the Ninja

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Ninjas move in for the kill in Professor Andrew Ward’s Intro to Psychology class.

Google “ninjagram” or “ninja gram” and the first result of each search will tell you that it’s a uniquely Swarthmorean phenomenon.

But that clearly just showcases the limited ability of the Internet, because NinjaGram coordinator James Mendez Hodes ’08 knows otherwise.

“It started here two years ago, but the whole NinjaGram program is about 1000 years old,” Hodes said. He proceeded to recount the legend, which convinced me that I had to be a ninja. (More on that later.)

Without wavering, Hodes talked about the NinjaGram’s influences—Buddhist monasteries, Shaolin, the Wu-Tang Clan, and mountain goblins of Japan who are half man, half crow, and half demon. The grams themselves are based on Daoist alchemical principles.

Students who have purchased NinjaGrams probably know that the money goes to charity—specifically, Swat Sudan and Katrina Relief. The green grams go to Some Rainforest.

But there is more to the grams than fundraising and college students suiting up to entertain their peers. Valentine’s Day often seems like a cruel reminder of loneliness.

“If you don’t [have a significant other], you feel like dressing up in black and want to kill people,” Hodes explained. This is where he introduces the idea of a “rollercoaster”—that taking your date on that sort of adrenaline rush creates excitement that simulates the excitement of love.

“So by instilling fear in a person when we jump out from under a desk and shout NINJAGRAM, we make them fall in love with us. Er, fall in love with the person who wrote the card.”

* * *

How could I deny a cause so unfailingly devoted to love? So my journey as a ninja began. The following night a small group convened in Parrish, and we learned how to fashion our own masks.

Hodes, who will now be less formally referred to as Mendez, demonstrated a ‘kill’ for us. Prancing past the doorway and peering behind the frame of the door, he made clear that the true art of the ninja was comedic. The kind you’d see in black-and-white films: silent, physical.

“What they’re paying for is humor,” Mendez said. He led us back to the middle of Parrish, and we gathered in a circle in front of the stairs to practice the ninja yell.


* * *

The morning of Valentine’s Day, I tried on my all-black ninja outfit, complete with mask. I had slept poorly, wired on caffeine and clearly unused to its effects. I felt much less like a badass ninja and more like a tired student.

Then I wandered over to the mirror to adjust my mask, and marveled. I’m reminded of my Introduction to Psychology class, and a clip of a ‘prison guard’ from the Stanford Prison Experiment: “You act the part. You have to act accordingly when you put [the uniform] on.”

In any case, the outfit convinced me that I had to follow the principles of a ninja as best as possible. I had the costume. I needed to be the part. So laden with caffeine, I made my way to Kohlberg for my first attack of the day, nervous and jittery. From the large windows on the second floor I noticed two other ninjas cruising about campus, grams bright and obvious against their dark outfits.

And as if to calm my nerves, I spotted another ninja in sneakers walking down the hall. He dropped to the floor, left a pile of grams outside the doorway of an Economics class, and slithered in. He stayed on the floor for a minute or two before popping up and executing the trademark yell: “NIIINJAGRAM!”

He ran off. The class broke into titters and discussed—“Did you see him?” “Yeah, he was on the floor the entire time,” one observer noted. If the most basic attack was simply dashing in and out, yelling, and hearing the ensuing laughter, I could do it. No reason to be nervous.

So I put on my mask in the restroom and hid behind a corner where I had view of the doorway, and stood still. I killed.

* * *

I met up with another ninja later that day to coordinate an attack on my Introduction to Psychology class. We paced, discussed battle plans, and scanned the room for our targets as about 200 students filed in. He told me he had three, would leave at 3:10, and that later we would fight over Andrew Ward.

At 3:20 I began to get worried that he was not going to appear and class would end before we could fight. I left, donned my mask and snuck quietly back in. Just as I let the loud and heavy door click shut, everyone laughed at one of Ward’s jokes. Perfect—no one had heard me.

I heard Ward comment on a ninja making his way towards him and realized this was my cue. As soon as I heard the first NINJAGRAM! I burst out and hit my targets.

Without realizing it, we had moved in symmetry—he on the right side of the room, I on the left, one target and then the next. As I made my way to the middle of the room and the middle of a row to reach my last target, I found him right there as well: NINJAGRAM! NINJAGRAM!

It looked like we had planned our dance down the aisles and to the middle, but it was just neat coincidence.

He hid and I exited, heading for a back door that led me behind the lecture area. He snuck behind the projector screen and wrote some instructions on the board—which led the professor to pull down one board, and then the next, and then the next, with various taunts written behind each one—and at last, a board that simply said HAHAHAHA.

At that point the ninja threw back his head in preparation for the kill.

I leapt out from behind, kicked him in the chest, and battled him until he collided with an airborne trashcan and was defeated. I picked up the NinjaGrams he left behind and claimed the victory. Andrew Ward was mine.

The advantage of attacking a 200-person class is that they are more likely applaud as though you just accomplished something amazing.

* * *

The rest of my kills that day were not so spectacular, and not so new or nerve-wracking. But I always enjoyed the stealth—at one point I hid behind a tree between the tennis courts and Wharton Courtyard, and jumped out from the dark—even though the entire affair brought me too close to a stalker’s mind for complete comfort.

It’s surprisingly easy to stalk someone and keep an eye on their movements. Especially if you can call your friends and ask if your stalkees are back from Sharples yet.

I’m not sure if I made anyone fall in love, or channeled the NinjaGram yell each time, or if I properly drew inspiration from monks and creatures made from three-halves. But I do know that going undercover made the day vastly more entertaining.

Because, as Mendez said, “A lot of people on this campus need to be relaxed in the face.”

Note: If you read this, you may have to be killed.


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