A Hunt Across the Heights

English professor Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield caught the story-writing bug when he was in fifth grade. After telling tales of pirates and the abominable snowman, he gained the conviction that he would one day be a writer. 

In 2005, he published his book Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter, in which he tells the story of a woman on the North Shore in Gloucester, Mass. who discovers a journal written 300 years prior by her ancestor who was a druid princess. 

“I had a distinct sense that I didn’t belong out here in the world, and where I belonged was inside the world of stories,” Kaplan-Maxfield said. 

To promote his new work, Kaplan-Maxfield designed a treasure hunt across BC’s campus. The clues of the hunt brought participants to different places around Main Campus, particularly those where BC lore prevails, such as The Wizard of Oz-inspired first floor of Fulton Hall, in pursuit of the treasure—a copy of his book with a jewel inside and a $1,000 reward. 

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Kaplan-Maxfield, dubbed “TKM” by his students, began teaching in Boston College’s English department in 1993, and has since been famed for his eccentricity and unconventional approach to teaching. 

Typically seen sporting a coat and tie in order to take advantage of what he said are the more limited opportunities to accessorize in men’s fashion, Kaplan-Maxfield prioritizes forming relationships with his students. 

He strives to learn each student’s name on the first day of class, he said. Another way he builds rapport with students is thanks to the old, cracked leather couch in his office, which he refers to as “Freud’s couch”—a place students come to share their troubles and cry. For his senior capstone classes, students can volunteer their dorm rooms to host and cook for the class. Though unconventional, this approach aids the learning process, Kaplan-Maxfield said.

In his years building relationships with BC students, Kaplan-Maxfield learned that they, too, share his itch to search for answers.

“I’ve always liked treasure hunts, mysteries, puzzles, and web sudoku. It’s like a cat playing with a ball around the leg of the table,” Kaplan-Maxfield said. 

Year after year, BC students attempted to solve his scavenger hunt. For years, students inched closer and closer to the final clue, but each time, they would graduate before being able to complete it, so Kaplan-Maxfield doubled the reward of the treasure. But fourteen years after its creation, Tiffany Brooks, MCAS ’21, broke the trend.

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Brooks has been an avid fan of mysteries and adventures since she was a kid, she said. She recalls her love for escape rooms and 5 Wits, an interactive adventure experience, where she effortlessly slipped into the role of detective.

“I used to love detective movies, like Spy Kids,” says Brooks. “I always loved things like that that get your brain going. It’s fun using my energy and knowledge of things outside of school. I love solving puzzles too.”

A highly involved member of the BC community, having previously served as a senator and the vice president of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College and an active member of both BC theatre and University Chorale, Brooks found herself stuck on campus during Columbus Day weekend last fall. 

Brooks recalled hearing about Forrest Fenn’s treasure hunt, a million-dollar treasure hunt which was completed earlier this year. Bored and eager to fill her free time over the long weekend, while also looking to quench her childhood affinity for adventure, she searched for ongoing treasure hunts in Boston. It was then that she stumbled upon Kaplan-Maxfield’s treasure hunt. 

As soon as she saw “Boston College” and “treasure hunt” in the same sentence, she said, she bought his book, read it that weekend, and began the search. 

“We did a lot of the hunt ‘that weekend,’ but I say that in quotes because we actually did it wrong,” Brooks said. “Once we thought we had gotten to the end, we emailed him the steps, and he told us that we were correct up until the halfway point, and then we started making crazy associations with everything else.”

Brooks attributes her eventual success to the fact that she’s not afraid to ask for help—admitting that she emailed Kaplan-Maxfield repeatedly along the way—and, in large part, to the help of her friends. 

Brooks recruited some of her friends, including Abby Hunt, MCAS ’21, Aidan O’Neill, MCAS ’23, Kiki Kavanagh, MCAS ’22, Jacob Kelleher, Lynch ’21, and Caitlin Mahon, MCAS ’21. If she ever needed help searching for clues, she said, they would all work on them together. 

“We all had a role in the treasure hunt,” Brooks said. “I was the one who introduced everybody to it, but there’s no way I could have done it without them.”

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According to Kaplan-Maxfield, many of the clues of the treasure hunt demanded an especially thorough knowledge of the book. For one of the particularly tricky clue sequences, Brooks said, she enlisted the help of Hunt and Mahon in order to find “the place of the tarred and feathered leader”—the Bapst Library.

One clue stumped Brooks for particularly long, she said. It instructed her to go to Bapst and find the sundial, with a clue that read, “Go there look for the hidden time. Solve the puzzle of this same rhyme. A treasure green lies there waiting to gain you gold for calculating,” she said.

“The fact that I have it memorized shows that I spent way too much time thinking about this,” Brooks said. “I had been daydreaming in class, and I was like, ‘What could this be?’ … I was so close but not quite there … It was all super exciting.” 

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The end of the hunt brought Brooks to the long-awaited treasure— an emerald jewel shaped into a five-pointed star, resembling a fictional brooch from Kaplan-Maxfield’s book. 

While Kaplan-Maxfield was designing the scavenger hunt years prior, he happened to be visiting a friend in Albuquerque, N.M., where he stumbled into an antique furniture store and found a brooch that looked exactly like the one he described in his book, he said. After obtaining the brooch, he took an old, sturdy hardcover copy of his book, cut out the pages inside, placed the jewel inside, and placed it on a bookshelf, where it stayed until Brooks found it. 

Brooks finished the hunt in early October this year, a week before the one year anniversary of when she began. Solving the hunt was bittersweet, Brooks said. Nearly a year in the making, she almost did not want it to end. 

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“It’s been so cool to learn more about BC. Plus, I feel like I’m Nancy Drew,” Brooks said. “So, the ending was bittersweet. I was definitely happy to find it, but I also miss the adventure it gave us.”

Kaplan-Maxfield also had mixed feelings about the long-awaited completion of his treasure hunt.

“It’s kind of strange when you do a treasure hunt,” Kaplan-Maxfield said. “You don’t want anyone to find it, but you also want to share this experience with someone. When students would get close in the past, I would think ‘Oh no, oh no,’ … But I couldn’t be happier or more thrilled that Tiffany found it. She’s so enthusiastic with a great heart, and she’s super smart.”

Brooks could not have solved Kaplan-Maxfield’s cryptic clues without a high level of creativity, she said. Despite moments of late-night frustration, Brooks learned patience and to use the resources available to her—all the while, having a little fun, she said.

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“We discovered so many cool things, and even cool people, throughout the hunt, so definitely will be remembered as such a great experience,” Brooks said.

Brooks credits her continued involvement and interest in the scavenger hunt to Kaplan-Maxfield’s creativity and his captivating personality. 

“He’s so funny and unique. So down-to-earth. Like, who else makes a freaking scavenger hunt?” Brooks said. 

The thrill and exhilaration of treasure-seeking that Brooks experienced brought Kaplan-Maxfield’s story to life, encapsulating the way that his passion for writing sets his imagination free—something he hopes to impart on his students.

“When I go into the story world, I may still feel like a fifth-grader because I am like a little kid in awe of what’s going on there,” Kaplan-Maxfield said. 

Although the book is now closed on his first scavenger hunt, Kaplan-Maxfield says he may create additional ones for two of his other books, Grail Mysterium and Satanis Mysterium, both of which feature fictional mysteries at BC, or “adventures on the Heights,” as he calls them. 

Having solved many scavenger hunts in the past, Brooks said she is also interested in making one of her own. She has considered collaborating with Kaplan-Maxfield to make a scavenger hunt for one of his other books, and said that before she and her scavenger hunt team graduate, they want to create one for other BC students.

With future scavenger hunts in the works, Kaplan-Maxfield and Brooks’ drive for adventure will live on among future BC students.

Headshot Courtesy of Tiffany Brooks

Photos by Maggie Dipatri / Heights Editor and Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Senior Staff

Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau / Heights Editor

Isabella Thorpe

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