Amherst Magazine

Letters to Class of 1963 Reunion Books

Peter Kerns


Amherst Class of 1963 Twentieth Reunion

Nobles Day Camp
Noble and Greenough School, 507 Bridge Street, Dedham, MA 02026, Tel 326-3700

Looking back and trying to organize the thoughts, feeling, and reminiscences of twenty years is a formidable task -- but however difficult, well worth the exercise -- not unlike the first few papers for Ben DeMott in the fall of 1959. The fall of 1959 -- it could be yesterday.

I was absolutely certain that the four years at Amherst would be solid preparation for Yale Drama School and a brilliant career on the stage -- or somewhere near it. Amherst was to be, for me, in essence a trade school where I could stand to pay the price of liberal arts for the trade-off of learning my craft. Of course, that little fantasy got blown away within a matter of months. Never more clearly was I blown away than by a devastating review in the “Student” for what I considered a perfectly stellar performance in “The Oresteia.” With the dedication of a jellyfish, I turned my back on an acting career and began to discover the world of the techies.

Kirby Theatre’s shop was a place where all the theory and hot air of the classroom dissipated and some real honest hammer-and-nails work took place. Over the years, the habits and attitudes fostered in Tuffy and Charlie’s shop have endured, and through my work in secondary, community and professional theatre have kept me sane -- to whatever degree that statement may be true!

Chapin Hall, a crystal night in January 1962; behind in the work as usual, I pulled an all-nighter to plow through “l’Annonce Faite a Marie,” by Paul Claudel. Smoking Pall Malls, writhing to stay awake through the early scenes, I gradually entered the magical mystery of the medieval ages as Claudel saw them. Glancing out the window at the sparkling snow, I could have been in medieval France; the complete and utter silence in the building slowly developed a near-palpable texture as the miracles of Claudel’s words worked its peculiar spell. Daylight broke on the final pages, and I emerged back into the twentieth century. Reluctantly, Claudel’s world slipped away into the dawn and there, once again, was the fairest….

The year as Green Dean in Admissions under the direction of Bill Wilson resolved my desire to teach -- a decision that I have never regretted -- in secondary school and within that context much of what I actually learned, did, felt, practiced at Amherst has been of daily use to me.

First, and most surprisingly, the intellectual growth that Amherst tried so unsuccessfully to foster in my undergraduate years has been blossoming ever since. Current projects include editing Garcia Lorca’s “Yerma” for high school students, a screenplay, and a very sketchily developed novel. On the passive side, reading voraciously occupies the (few) hours of down-time when I am not at school or rehearsing in community theatre with my wife, an activity I am firmly convinced has kept our marriage alive and growing.

Second, the excellent language background that Amherst taught me -- particularly Calvin Cannon -- allowed me to recapture enough Spanish after twelve years totally away from it to become a very effective classroom teacher and Hispanic promoter in the school. But again, a quarrel -- my focus of language at Amherst was active use, daily command; the Department’s was literary criticism, detailed textual analysis.

Third, Amherst (and more particularly Charlie Rogers) developed a love and understanding of theatre and how it works -- or perhaps, how it can work at its best -- that has been the touchstone of my life since. My major recreation, chief creative outlet and source of most rewards has been theatre, from finding my best friend/wife in a Smith College production to our taking over the local group which her grandfather had founded in 1924, all this has its roots in the Amherst experience.

Odd that so much of my current thought and work is based upon visual images when the extraction and evaluation of images from text was one of the most odious activities for me at college. Odd also that from so staid and conventional educational and growth process should emerge a philosophy that LIFE IS MUCH TOO IMPORTANT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY. Odd that the basic non-jock should wind up running a day camp for 500 children. Odd how many images, thoughts and feelings refuse to be captured, pinned down and examined. Odd how fast time passes.

/s/ Peter Kerns