A Different Kind of Audience

By Ioanida Costache ’12

For the past three weeks a group of string players have been working with Professor of Music David Schneider on a chamber music project designed to get classical music out of its traditional settings of classrooms and concert halls.  With Schneider on clarinet, a string quartet composed of UMass alumnus Ben Van Vliet, me on violin, Hana Kommel ’10 on viola and local cellist Wayne Smith prepared a range of pieces to bring to a different kind of audience.

Schneider, who teaches courses on music theory, music history and analysis, has for some time wanted to organize a group of students who were interested in community engagement. He approached prospective group members in early April with this opportunity to exercise our performing muscles in atypical venues – in our case, the Amherst Survival Center (a community center that provides meals and other services to the needy) and the Hampshire County Jail. It sounded intriguing to me, and I signed on for “Chamber Music Outreach.”

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Audience members listen to the musicians at the Amherst Survival Center.

Now, several weeks and almost 50 hours of rehearsal time later, I found myself cramped between a whirling fan and a humming refrigerator at the Amherst Survival Center. We would be playing during dinner. I hardly expected to be heard, let alone listened to. Having never been to the center, I had already been worried that we would feel out of place, unaccepted by the people and the space. But the moment we stepped in, we were received with such anticipation and warmth that all of those inhibitions fell away. The people sat down, listened intently and seemed to be immersed in our playing.

On our second visit, this time during lunch, crowded into a corner by the pantry, we should have felt more in the way than appreciated. We had to creatively find stopping points in our pieces to allow one woman to climb over us to get to the supplies.

Despite this, as the 75 people—including our own Tony Marx, who was volunteering at the center—stopped by to listen, I felt that our presence there was a definite positive. As Professor Schneider discussed each movement, one quiet-mannered man interrupted to ask a question about the “shaky thing” the violinists were doing with their left hands while playing. Ben stood up and explained that this is called vibrato and demonstrated the difference in timbre when the instrument is played with or without vibrato.

Watching this man curiously engage in something that was clearly foreign to him was the highlight of the entire experience for me. This man asking about vibrato made these concerts far more rewarding than the stuffy atmosphere of a “standard” concert in a music hall.

After we played, we were offered a great meal and great conversation with many of the listeners. An elderly woman who sat entranced through our entire set expressed many thanks as we were packing up even though she missed lunch to watch us.

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The reception made us feel just what Tracy Levy, program director, described to sum up the concerts: “The Buckley Ensemble brought a sense of calm and wonder to the Amherst Survival Center both times they performed here.  The community was transformed by the beautiful music, and everyone—all 75 people for lunch and 20 people during dinner—expressed their appreciation and joy.”

We took our show farther down the road, to the Hampshire County Jail, where we played for the inmates in an acoustically booming visitors’ room. The setup in this venue was similar to that of a traditional concert; we were not integrated into general flow of the place, as we were  at the Survival Center. But the difference in audience made a huge difference in our playing. The group remarked to each other later that we felt we played our best at these performances because we felt like we had to really sell Brahms to these guys. The most wonderful part about it is that they picked up on it! When prompted for questions at the end, the inmates commented on how moving it was to see us play with such conviction and passion.

What exactly the listeners may have gotten out of our Mozart and Brahms, I’m not sure. It’s possible that the young girl listening to us with a smirk on her face might now find a way to bring an instrument into her life, or that we rekindled a forgotten interest for some of the older folks. It’s also possible that the impact we made wasn’t as direct as we would have hoped.

After performing twice at the Survival Center and playing another two sets at the Hampshire Jail, I don’t think any of the performers pieced together these fragments and feelings into a concluding statement about the experience. I do know that our group was greatly affected by the experience. I think the impact we made was in fact made onto us as well. The conversations we had among ourselves in reflection, as well as with the sheriff and other directors, highlighted our desire to do more of this outreach.

At the very least, these performances were exhilarating for us, since we felt responsible for bringing something we love and cherish into the lives of people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to classical music.

After our performance at the Survival Center, we handed out save-the-date cards for two additional performances by the Buckley Chamber Players. These concerts, Summer Songs on July 10 and Amber Hues on July 21, will be in Buckley Recital Hall are free and open to the public. We all hope to see some of our audience from the Survival Center there.

Photos by Samuel Masinter ’04.

Professor Awarded One of Russia’s Top Civilian Medals

Professor William Taubman is presented with the Russian medal of  the Order of Friendship

Hon. Andrey K. Yushmanov (left) presents Professor William Taubman with one of Russia’s top civilian medals.

By Emily Gold Boutilier

One of my favorite things about editing Amherst magazine is that sometimes the job is unpredictable. On Monday, in between writing about students who edit Wikipedia and approving an illustration on the economics of dueling, I heard that William Taubman, the political science professor who won a Pulitzer for his biography of Nikita Khrushchev, would soon receive one of Russia’s top civilian medals. Two days later, I found myself in the same room as an important Russian official. Who would have thought?

The Russian official, the Hon. Andrey K. Yushmanov, is consul general of the Russian Federation in New York. He’d traveled to Amherst to formally present Taubman with the medal, known as the Order of Friendship. Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev decreed that the medal be awarded to Taubman—the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science—for “a great contribution to the development of cultural ties with the Russian Federation, including the preservation and popularization of Russian language and culture.”

Taubman’s wife, Jane, who is a professor of Russian at Amherst, and more than 50 of their friends and colleagues came to the ceremony in the college’s Center for Russian Culture, an intimate, book-filled room in Webster Hall with an awe-inducing view of the HolyokeRange. After an introduction by Russian professor and center director Stanley Rabinowitz, Yushmanov praised Taubman for writing about events that “shaped the past and the present of Russia.” Yushmanov then presented the official medal and order, “written in Russian,” he told Taubman, “but I’m sure it’s not a problem for you.”

Taubman approached the podium and told a few stories, including about his grandfather who fled to the United States from Russia in 1905. Taubman has been to Russia and the former Soviet Union some 30 times to conduct research for various projects. His 2003 book, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, won a National Book Critics Circle Award in addition to the Pulitzer. It sold out its first printing in Russia; a second edition has just been released.

“I am a political scientist who, in effect, ends up doing history in the form of biography,” Taubman said at the ceremony, where he observed that Russians don’t write biographies of this kind. “They are inclined,” he said, “to think that the great moving forces of history are impersonal rather than personal.”

Taubman is now working on a biography of another Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Peak Performances

By Katherine Duke '05

Amherst’s Spring 2010 season of performances is in full swing. In just the past three weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in the audience for five very different shows.

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Emmanuel Genard '10 and Tanya Jackson '10 perform in Cloud Tectonics.

Cloud Tectonics, by José Rivera, ran in the Holden Experimental Theater Feb. 18- 20 and was the senior project in acting for both Tanya Jackson ’10 and Emmanuel Genard ’10. Jackson starred as Celestina del Sol, a pregnant hitchhiker whom we first see standing at a bus stop in the rain (I was especially impressed with the way director Patricia McGregor was able to simulate the storm and the headlights of passing cars); eventually, Celestina is picked up by Anibal de la Luna (Genard). In the tradition of Latin American magical realism, the play infuses the mundane with the mystical. Anibal lives in an ordinary apartment and works at the airport in Los Angeles, but Celestina embodies what might be a miracle or a curse, or both: she is exempt from the usual flow of time, aging very slowly, unable to distinguish between seconds and seasons, minutes and months. The two characters fall in love over the course of one night—or is it two years?—and then meet again when she’s still a young mother but he is an old man. Cloud Tectonics dramatizes the ways in which our emotions can make time seem to fly or stop dead, love can feel like a force of nature and our interactions with other people can alter the very courses of our lives.

On March 1 in Webster Studio 3, I enjoyed an evening of Spring One-Acts, courtesy of students in Theater and Dance 48: “Directing Comedy.”  Diandra Partridge ’11 directed “The Best Daddy,” by the famously quirky Shel Silverstein, in which a father (Eric Swartz ’11) presents his daughter (Hampshire student Lydia Hadfield, who looked like a Silverstein drawing come to life, with her long braids and cartoonish energy) with a special birthday surprise, hidden under a sheet. But is it animal or human? Alive or dead? Even at the end, I wasn’t certain. In “Arabian Nights,” written by David Ives and directed by UMass student Lori Zimmermann, a translator (Farris Hassan ’11) takes some poetic liberties in helping a man and woman (Dylan Herts ’13 and Khalsa Kaur) communicate. Even before the first lines of “2B or Not 2B,” written by Jacquelyn Reingold and directed by Ilana Toeplitz of UMass, Gregorio Coello ’10 got a laugh just by taking his place onstage, dressed as a giant honeybee. And my favorite moment in Frederick Stroppel’s “Chocolate,” directed by Estefania Colon ’11, came when the detective (Zach Cherry ’10) pointed out a suspicious stain on the carpet in the home of a murder suspect (Bessie Young ’11): the square of carpet was flung from offstage left and came skidding across the floor, just in time for the beam from the detective’s flashlight to land on it. The class—taught by Michael Birtwistle, the Stanley King ’03 Professor of Dramatic Arts, Emeritus—will present two more rounds of one-act comedies in Webster 3 later in the semester.

I had read Romeo and Juliet and seen film versions of it, but on March 3, I finally got my chance to see it performed live. Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS), brought to the Amherst campus by Associate Professor of English Anston Bosman, presented Shakespeare’s tragedy in Kirby Theater. I was expecting a standard production, with a large cast in full Renaissance costume. Instead, I was amazed to watch only five actors, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, play more than 20 parts and use only minimal props and music to tell the story in a way that felt alive and modern. The next afternoon, actors Geoffrey Lumb and Jennifer Higham staged scenes from Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Frost Library. Afterward, they answered questions from the audience about AFTLS and how they and the other actors developed their touring show without a director.  

Every winter for the past 13 years, Amherst students have staged a production of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. This year’s show, titled Women of Amherst and the Vagina Monologues… It’s More Than You Imagine, went up March 4-6 in the Cole Assembly Room of Converse Hall. Directed by Estefania Colon ’11 and Natasha Smith ’11, it included some of Ensler’s monologues, as well as original pieces by the dozens of women in the cast. The monologues delved into the complexities of female sexuality and identity, from the flamboyant (an over-the-top musical number by Ezzell Floranina), to the stranger-than-fiction (a list of real products and procedures available to clean, freshen, bleach and reshape various a certain body part), to the personal (an Amherst student’s story of having been molested by her music teacher as a child), to the horrific (a mother from Darfur telling her child about “your father—all six of him” who shot her husband and raped her). All proceeds from ticket sales and an accompanying raffle went to the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition.

On March 5 and 6, the annual Five College Music and Dance show took place at the renowned Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass. The lush red curtain opened to  “Not So, Alone,” a piece composed by Associate Professor of Music Eric Sawyer and choreographed by Professor of Theater and Dance Wendy Woodson in which the dancer (Akhiro Maeda) interacted with the clarinetists onstage with him (Lynn Sussman of the Springfield Symphony and Associate Professor of Music David Schneider). Three more pieces paired dance with colorful animation, with Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin and with selections from Bach’s cello suites, respectively. But the show culminated with a restaging of “Gloria,” the masterpiece by acclaimed choreographer Mark Morris, set to Vivaldi’s Gloria in D as performed by members of the Amherst College Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra. I listened to the singers praise God in Latin and watched the dancers, dressed in all white, crawl and leap and lurch back and forth across the stage. At first, the spectacle struck me as just plain weird, but as it went on, I grew more and more absorbed in trying to figure it out. Was I supposed to be seeing inch worms? Amoebas in a Petri dish? Bits of paper wafting on the breeze? Angels in heaven? I still don’t know, but it was remarkable to watch.  

Photo by Jessica Mestre '10

Top Guns

By Katherine Duke '05

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The students in the Interterm course “An Introduction to the Principles, Practices, and Procedures of Turbine Flight” sat in a darkened room in Merrill, taking turns on a joystick and mouse, being pilot and co-pilot on Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX). Projected onto a screen at the front of the room were the switches, dials and lights of a Boeing 737 flight deck and a simulated view of the trees, buildings and waters around the BeefIslandAirport in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Rain was lashing the plane’s windshield, lightning crackled in the distance, and the students were about to undertake a perilous mission.

The course, sponsored for the past three years by the Department of Astronomy, began on Jan. 13 with a trip to Connecticut’s (real) BradleyInternationalAirport, where a pilot showed the class the instruments and control surfaces of a Falcon jet. Over the next week and a half in Merrill, instructor Captain Henry Parker Hirschel—who also teaches the Interterm course on “Celestial Navigation” —used a small, colorful model of a 737 for visual demonstrations and also taught brief lessons on Newtonian physics and the evolution of flight simulation technology.  

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But the bulk of class time was devoted to practicing on FSX, and the trickiest skill to learn was landing—that’s when most accidents happen. The students’ final challenge was to fly “a despondent WilliamsCollege varsity football team” from Tortola to St. Thomas in the midst of a thunderstorm. As Hirschel gave helpful reminders (“It’s not a video game.” “Up is this way.” “You don’t mumble in a cockpit.”) and sometimes hummed Wagner’s The Valkyrie, each co-pilot read through a checklist from the course flight manual to make sure that the plane and pilot were “good to go,” and the pilots did their best to guide the jet up off one runway, through the air and down onto the other—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. “Oh, the humanity!” Hirschel cried each time the computer showed the plane plowing into the asphalt or a tree. He kept a tally of these “hull losses” on the blackboard.

In the end, the count was 23 hull losses—an improvement over last year’s 27—and several safe journeys. While this course didn’t exactly provide the 2,000-plus hours of jet time required for real licensure to be a co-pilot, every student did step up, salute and receive a certificate of membership into the “Merrill Flyers of Amherst College.”

See more photos from the class here.

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His Last First Week

Interview by Katherine Duke '05

Ben Lieber has been dean of students at Amherst since 1984 and will move on to a new position at the college in 2010. This year, he brought decades of perspective—and a brand-new beard—to his final First-Year Orientation. He spoke recently about his experiences:

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Ben Lieber in 2009 in his office in Converse Hall

On the history of college orientations

It’s actually a very interesting study in social history, I suspect. The practice back when I was in college, which was in the late ‘60s, and I’m sure well before that, was to have a very truncated orientation—maybe a speech by the president and a speech by the dean, and then you were sort of thrown into things, and it was sink or swim. Particularly as a result of the social and political turmoil of the ‘70s and the early ‘80s, colleges came to be seen as much more complicated, heterogeneous places, where a lot of social and political issues were playing out in ways that hadn’t necessarily been the case in previous generations. And I think colleges felt the need to begin addressing those issues, so orientation programs expanded correspondingly. The fact, for instance, that Amherst began admitting women in the late 1970s raised the need for the college to address gender issues that simply hadn’t been present previously. Same thing with racial issues, issues of sexual orientation. As this world became more diverse and more complicated, so too did orientation programs, and I think it reached the stage where, for virtually any issue that one could think of, the immediate impulse was, “Well, we need to address it somehow in orientation.”

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Ben Lieber outside of Fayerweather Hall, 1985

On conversations

There were a series of years, particularly those early years when Dean [Onawumi Jean] Moss [associate dean of students from 1985 to 2006] was first here, when a lot of these issues really were pretty fraught. She conducted a session during Orientation every year called “Conversations on Being at Amherst.” At a time when a lot of students found it difficult and awkward to talk about things like race and their own backgrounds and their own conceptions and misconceptions, those were, very, very important and moving conversations. It was a product, I think, of Dean Moss’s skill and sensitivity in running them, but it was also a sign of one of the best things about Amherst College, which is the goodwill that students bring to it. It’s a place where students, whatever their backgrounds, come hoping to engage closely with their fellow students. I think the scale and the size of the college enable that. Compared to four years of living and interacting with each other, and compared to the actual educations that students get, Orientation is trivial. We place a lot of symbolic weight on Orientation that it really can’t carry, because it is such a small portion of a student’s time here. Nonetheless, there are occasional moments that really are striking, such as those “Conversations.”

On students and their parents

The people who are coming to college now are, in many cases, the children of parents who went through these [long, issue-focused] orientations themselves. I think today’s students come to places like Amherst expecting to come to a much more diverse and complicated world, and many of them have grown up thinking about these issues in ways that previous generations maybe didn’t have to before they got to college. So I find this generation of students actually very, very open to these issues. Similarly, I think parents are much less anxious about these issues. It’s a cliché at this point to say that many of them [are] hyper-involved in their sons’ or their daughters’ lives. But they’re less worried about, “Is the college going to be talking too much to my son or daughter about sex?” or “Is my son or daughter going to have problems with a roommate because they’re of a different racial background?” I think there’s an expectation that the world has changed, changed for the better, and that it’s important for students to participate in that. To the extent that students and their parents are coming in more and more anxious, it is about questions of academic success and academic pressure and “How do I choose my future, in academic terms?” The result is that the Orientation Committee has placed an even greater emphasis on academic issues—and especially issues of academic support—than may have been the case a decade or 15 years ago.

On his duties

Orientation really is run by the Orientation Committee, which is chaired by the dean of new students, Allen Hart, Class of ’82 and professor of psychology. Many of my duties basically involve showing up. I do give a speech to the freshman class—kind of a welcome speech—along with several other people, including the director of admissions, the dean of new students, the president, the president of the student government and the dean of the faculty. Then the dean of new students and I do a session involving both academic and social behavior on campus, introducing the students to the rules and regulations and having them sign the Honor Code, which we’ve been doing for the last five years now. Otherwise, a lot of what I do is mingle and meet the freshmen and just start getting to know them.

On making a fool of himself

Both my worst and my best memories involve the multiple ways that upperclass students have figured out to have me humiliate myself during Orientation. That generally involves the RCs [Resident Counselors] and the RC Show, which is a custom that predates my arrival here: it started in the late 1970s. ([Before that], I think there were other means of humiliation, usually by taking the dean of students captive, but those were different times.) A dean named Kathy Deignan, who supervised the RCs, invented the idea of doing the RC Show as a kind of bonding experience between the RCs and the freshman class, and it’s just a terrific custom. There have been quite a few years when I’ve been urged to participate in at least one sketch and didn’t have the good judgment to decline. The only way I’ve been able to survive in this job as long as I have is by blocking out all those memories immediately after they occur.

On the Class of 2013

It’s a terrific group of freshmen. It’s a very large class, actually, but they seem incredibly enthusiastic, incredibly diverse, extraordinarily friendly. One of the clichés about the academic world is that those of us who spend our lives here get older, and the students stay the same age. And I have to say, they’re seeming incredibly young to me now—substantially younger than my own children, both of whom graduated from college in the early 2000s. I have gone from, in my early years, feeling at some moments akin to an older brother of students, to feeling very, very paternal, at a time when students were roughly the same age as my kids. I’m glad not to have to reach the stage of feeling grandpaternal to them.

His advice to incoming students

I think my strongest piece of advice is to retain the sense of enthusiasm and optimism that they enter with. The opportunities are extraordinary for them. It’s very easy, over time, particularly because of the economic and career pressures that face this generation, to get caught up in a mechanistic view of education that, in the long run, I think is counterproductive. If—and I think many students do—they can retain the sense of wonder and enthusiasm and sheer potential enjoyment that they come to college with over the course of four years, they’ll do just fine.

His advice to the next dean of students

In general, I think my best advice is heavy doses of medication. 

Always Mindful

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke on Thursday, 8/13/2009, at 1:57 PM

“How come we all can’t be just a little bit more like monks here?”

Andrew Kriete ’11E has been wondering about this ever since he returned to Amherst after four months practicing meditation in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in New York. He was speaking on a student panel on April 23 as part of the college’s first Day of Mindfulness—a series of events inviting members of the college community to explore various contemplative practices. In the Babbott Room of the Octagon, nine students discussed how and why they’re trying to be mindful in their academic and social lives.

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Led by Professor of Art and the History of Art Joel Upton, students meet for a morning meditation in the Yushien Japanese garden.

When a high school friend introduced him to the Shambhala Buddhist forms of contemplative practice, Ryan Milov ’10 said, it intimidated him at first as “a weird mix between the occult and the hippie.” But he stuck with it, and though a specific meditation practice no longer feels right for him, he said, he has still “found contemplative postures toward all sorts of problems very useful,” and these postures need not be shrouded in mystery and supernatural belief.  Mindfulness is difficult to define, but it seems to mean simply being aware of one’s own awareness, calmly stepping back to observe one’s thoughts and feelings as they arise. Milov describes it as “seeing myself thinking.”

Like many students on the panel, Heather Leonard ’10 credits her embrace of mindfulness to “Eros and Insight,” a First-Year Seminar taught collaboratively by Arthur Zajonc, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Physics, and Joel Upton, professor of art and the history of art. (Upton spoke about the seminar in the Spring 2004 issue of Amherst magazine.) After taking the course, Leonard wondered, “What if I brought this new attention, this awareness, to everything? To everything I did, all my relationships with people?”

Dylan Bianchi ’09, whose parents converted to Shambhala Buddhism decades ago, said his regular meditation practice lets him approach his classwork with greater concentration and suspension of judgment. “It’s allowed me to more fully embody what might be considered to be the liberal arts kind of ethos,” he said, “of exploring lots of different subjects and exposing yourself to lots of different ideas without being too fully locked into one approach.”

All of the students agreed that mindfulness has intriguing applications to academic life. Milov said that a contemplative posture helps him integrate the very different ways of thinking required for philosophy classes and for poetry classes. Others talked about how a dance class can be a chance to focus on the connections between mind and body, and about how contemplative practice might inform quantitative disciplines and vice versa.

But they also acknowledged that student life throws up all kinds of obstacles to mindfulness. “Amherst is definitely a cool place to jump headfirst into contemplative practice, because you keep hitting things: people, academics,” Kriete said. “There’s always something that can make you worry.”

“I think, at Amherst, there can be a tendency for people to be really hard on themselves and to push themselves and deprive themselves of sleep and food sometimes,” Bianchi observed. “One thing that mindfulness does is it really makes you aware of yourself and what you need as a physical being.”

So the very pressures, habits and complexities that contribute to the difficulty of practicing mindfulness in college are the reasons why students especially need its benefits.

In organizing the Day of Mindfulness, Zajonc and several of the student panelists wanted to introduce these benefits to the whole campus. “I’ve been teaching contemplative-oriented courses for several years with some colleagues here,” the professor told me after sitting in on the panel. Then, he said, he began having conversations about mindfulness with Director of Athletics Suzanne Coffey and Senior Lacrosse Coach Chris Paradis, which prompted a larger and more inclusive conversation about the many ways to apply contemplative practices throughout life at Amherst. “We had 15 or 20 people from various parts of the college—from counseling to athletics, faculty, students, administration—sitting around a table,” Zajonc said. “The idea [became], Well, what might we do in common, rather than each of us working independently? Why don’t each of us do a little something?”

So the Day of Mindfulness featured not just the student panel, but also a meditation in the Yushien garden with Upton; a morning yoga class with Paradis; a guided meditation with Religious Adviser Mark Hart; and a stress-reduction workshop with Debra Edelman from the Counseling Center. Zajonc opened up his class “From Dilemma to Dialogue: Science, Values and Spiritual Traditions,” and Professor of Economics Daniel Barbezat shared a mindfulness exercise from his course “Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The day’s “capstone” was a lecture, “No Time to Think: Information Technology and Contemplative Scholarship,” by Professor David Levy from the University of Washington.
 
“It’s a modest beginning,” Zajonc said of the day. He and Upton were looking forward to “The Contemplative Heart of Higher Education,” the annual conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, to be held at Amherst that weekend, April 24- 26. That event would feature 60 presentations by people incorporating contemplative practices “in everything from English literature to art history to science courses and social science courses,” he said, and he planned to tell them all about Amherst’s inaugural experiment. “My guess is, a couple dozen of them will pick it up, and around the country, you’ll start to see Days of Mindfulness.”

PBS "Fetchers" Come to Campus

The PBS children’s series FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman came to campus recently to film a segment for the show’s upcoming fifth season. Dressed as detectives, two contestants on the program (which is part reality show, part game show, part spoof), arrived at the Amherst Museum of Natural History with a six-person crew on a drizzly weekend morning in June.

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Sauter, left, shows the contestants around the museum
While cameras rolled, the contestants, Emmie and Marco, wearing Sherlock Holmes caps, posed and answered questions about dinosaurs and dinosaur footprints to Steve Sauter, the museum’s coordinator of education. “So these are dinosaurs, right?” Emmie asked, pointing to bones on the lower level. “Yes,” Sauter replied, “very large dinosaurs. Here’s a triceratops.”

The filming worked like this: Sauter and the kids would talk, unscripted, about mountain erosion or dinosaur tracks or the social habits of prehistoric creatures until a producer or cameraman would yell, “Cut!,” give direction on where to stand or what to say and order a retake.

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The contestants examine a bone fragment in the Musem of Natural History
As the very long day wore on (there were a lot of takes), Emmie and Marco did scientific deductive reasoning on the behavior, size and speed of the dinosaurs. Sometimes a producer would feed the kids a question, such as, How do paleontologists know that the tracks are so old? Sauter’s answer: Scientists gather data about the surrounding rocks to determine their age. (Later, the crew would film Sauter, Emmie and Marco outdoors at the dinosaur tracks in Holyoke, Mass.)

At one point, Emmie pointed to a rock inside a museum display case. It was shiny and purple. “Ruff, check this out: that is one pretty stone,” Emmie said. The exchange was one-sided: Ruff, an animated dog, is the show’s star. He was not on set.

 

Summer Camp(us)

By Katherine Duke '05

You might think that, after Commencement and Reunion each year, the Amherst College campus empties out for the summer. You might picture the 1,000 acres lying mostly quiet and uninhabited, except by a few student interns and the occasional tour group, from June through August. You might assume that that the classroom buildings, the gyms, the performance spaces and the dining hall basically shut down. You’d be wrong. Every summer, the campus hosts more than two dozen programs for kids and adults, from Nike Tennis Camp, to the Summer Science & Humanities Programs for incoming Amherst first-years, to the Ko Festival of Performance, to a Biology Teachers’ Workshop in Genomics.

On Wednesday, July 29, I decide to sample a day in the summer life of Amherst. My day starts when I follow 70 or 80 high schoolers into Converse Hall’s Cole Assembly Room, for an academic session with the Great Books Summer Program. Many of the students are wearing matching blue backpacks or T-shirts, which display a quote from Oscar Wilde: “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” Today, they’ve brought in not books but stapled packets—they’ve been reading Pericles’ Funeral Oration. The instructor is Peter Temes, past president of the Great Books Foundation, who co-founded the program in 2002 with Ilan Stavans, Amherst’s Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College Fortieth Anniversary Professor. Temes is dressed in shorts and loafers, and he seems to know all the kids’ names. He has them read excerpts aloud and asks them to respond to Pericles’ ideas about what makes Ancient Athens an admirable society. They consider, for example, the idea that intellectual discussions—such as the ones they’ve been having—must be “preparatory to action.” “Can you say,” Temes asks, “‘Because we read the Pericles Funeral Oration, because we read Whitman and Neruda, because I’ve been in a room with these people and really had an exchange of ideas—because I have now understood, at some level, what this world looks like through the eyes of Sam or through the eyes of Rachel—because of that, when I rise to live my life, I will do it differently and better’?”

One boy dozes off and has to be nudged awake by one of the program’s young adult teaching assistants. The rest of the students, though, are following the text attentively and raising their hands. When Temes alludes to a line from Walt Whitman, they all chime in to quote the poet. Even during brief breaks, some students approach the teacher to delve deeper into certain concepts, and those seated in front of me don’t just chit-chat about sports—they debate what they call their “theories about baseball.”

For the second half of the session, Temes takes the class from the Peloponnesian War to the U.S. Civil War, comparing and contrasting Pericles’ oration to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. They discuss whether the president’s message about the challenge of making sure that “these dead shall not have died in vain” is still relevant to the lives of Americans today. After Academic Co-Director Chris Dreeson guides a talk about Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address and a student reads Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!,” the class applauds and breaks off into small discussion groups.

I go to Valentine for lunch and find the place packed. Adults carry around sporting equipment, and young kids line up at the soft-serve ice cream machine. Everywhere are signs designating certain rooms and tables as “Reserved for Camp Shemesh” or “Reserved for SIG.” (SIG stands for Summer Institute for the Gifted, a program run on many college campuses across the country. When I talk to Site Director RJ Kiem a few days later, he describes SIG as an opportunity for “superstars in the academic world”—chess champions, musicians and other high achievers in the fourth through 11th grades—to get a taste of residential college life and take rigorous classes in physics, chemistry, writing and other subjects. “Their parents would like them to be competitive enough to get into Amherst” and other selective colleges, Kiem says, “so this is sort of like a practice for that.”) As I scan the dining hall, I also can’t help but notice lots and lots of teenagers in a rainbow of matching T-shirts: some pink, some teal, some yellow, some red. What’s the deal with the T-shirts?

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Athletes from this year's National Ultimate Training Camp, during their culminating tournament on the Amherst College campus

I find out that afternoon, when I head down to one of the athletic fields and talk with Tiina Booth, an English teacher at Amherst Regional High School and director of the five-day National Ultimate Training Camp. (Ultimate might more descriptively be called “Ultimate Frisbee,” but Frisbee is a trademark, so the sport’s authorities discourage the use of that term.) “What you’re seeing now, here, is the culmination of the week, and this is the tournament,” she tells me. We watch from the sidelines as the 14- to 18-year-olds, mostly boys, toss the disks around—each of the eight teams signified by a different color shirt. Booth boasts that this is the oldest high school Ultimate training camp in the country; the only other one is in Madison, Wis. When the NUTC started at UMass in 2001, it drew only 28 campers, but this summer, there are 280 from all around the country—reflecting the “phenomenal growth of Youth Ultimate in the past four or five years.” It’s a special honor, she says, for the program to be on the Amherst campus, where Jared Kass ’68 and his friends first started to develop the sport

Booth introduces me to Emily Baecher, an Amherst native who has played on regional teams (with and against some women from Amherst College’s Ultimate club), as well as for the University of Michigan. “I went from [NUTC] camper to counselor-in-training, and now I’m a counselor, and I’ve actually been here every year of the camp,” Baecher says. “There are a number of kids who come back for three or four years in a row, and they go from being the littlest kid on the team, just sort of running around, and now they’re the ones out there calling the lines, making the calls and really being leaders, and it’s really fun to watch.”             

At the end of the day, I drop by the Media Center on the A Level of Frost Library, to check my e-mail. I’m not at all surprised to be sharing the center with a lively bunch of middle-schoolers. Their instructor is busily herding them toward a cluster of computers to work on a new project. I can only guess what program they’re from, but whatever it is, I bet they’re learning a lot and having fun.     

Photo by Brian Cook

Taking the Art World by Storm

By Katherine Duke '05

I’m in a gallery of the Mead Art Museum, examining three sculptures. Each one is a sort of woven basket, oddly shaped and adorned with beads and loops of wire in various bright colors. The small plaque beneath each creation lists the artist’s media as “Wood, reed and data.”

Data? How does one make a sculpture out of data?

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On March 10 in the Mead Art Museum, Artist-in-Residence Nathalie Miebach spoke about her latest project, in which she used information about the weather to create sculptures and music.
Ask Artist-in-Residence Nathalie Miebach. In the words of Susan Anderson, coordinator of college programs for the Mead, Miebach “combines science, art and music all in one.” On the afternoon of March 10, the artist described her process and presented her work in a museum talk and performance titled “Tuning In—Musical Variations on Weather.”

Miebach’s interest in using science to produce art began eight years ago, when she took classes in the astronomy department at Harvard. Three years ago, she shifted her focus exclusively to weather. “I was on Cape Cod for about two years, and every day I would go to the same beach and record weather,” she said. She used simple devices to gather objective data, but she also kept a daily weather journal, recording her own impressions of the conditions around her. “Weather is not just an amalgam of systems that you can record with your instruments,” she explained to us in the audience. “If you go to an environment and you rely entirely on your instruments for weather data, you will never understand weather, because weather really is an interaction with an environment.”

Then she went to Boston to observe weather in an urban environment—a more complicated endeavor, because buildings and pollution and human population patterns all affect natural weather processes and vice versa. “You can read one [measurement] going down one block, but then you’ll read a totally different thing going down the other block,” she said. “This fragmented way of hearing weather reminded me of, for example, the way instruments are part of a symphony.”

Never having studied music before, Miebach composed a rather unusual score (one page of which she had copied for each audience member to look at). The basis of the music was her regular readings of temperature, humidity and barometric pressure, which she plotted in particular colors as notes on a musical staff. “Whatever the average [reading] was, was that middle line in the staff, and I went from there.” Other symbols stood in for cloud cover at any given time, and wind directions became blue lines crisscrossing the page. Miebach also translated her paper scores into the three woven sculptures now on display. The sculptures can actually be read and played on an instrument.

Miebach worked with various musicians and finally partnered with pianist Elaine Rombola. To Meibach’s delight, “Elaine saw things in the score I didn’t see,” being able to look “through the eyes of a piano.” Rombola transferred the colorful score into more traditional musical notation and made decisions about, for example, where to vary the tempo—but she stayed faithful to the weather readings and the numerical relationships between temperature, pressure and humidity. The music turns out to somehow sound like how the weather feels.

Inside the Mead, the artist and the musician presented t two pieces. Journey into a New Night is based on the weather, and the emotionally and temporally “re-shuffled” way that Miebach perceived it, during the week that her father-in-law died. Of External Weather, Internal Storm, Miebach explained, “In early November, there was a storm that was very, very violent in the sky, but you couldn’t hear it. … There was a very slow build-up, over several days, until it finally burst one night. And this coincided with a visit that I had of my parents, and this visit kind of brought up a lot of internal storms.”

Rombola played each piece on a piano. Sometimes the music was loud, low and rumbling—it sounded, to me, like a thunderstorm brewing. At other times, Rombola switched to high, gentle, slow notes, landing like soft raindrops. Occasionally, she reached inside the piano and strummed the strings in a particular direction, which, she explained in the concluding question-and-answer period, represented the direction of the wind.

At one point in the Q&A, an audience member remarked, “I thought what was especially interesting today is, as we’re listening and looking at your pieces, being surrounded by so much weather on the walls.” He was right: the gallery walls were covered with different painted landscapes showing snow, clouds, sunshine and storms at sea. Artists have always attempted to capture the human experience of our world’s weather. But never, perhaps, in quite the way that Miebach and Rombola have.

This exhibition by Artist-in-Residence Nathalie Miebach is on display in the Eli Marsh Gallery of Fayerweather Hall until April 17, 2009.

Photo by Geoffrey Giller '10

Open Secrets

By Katherine Duke '05

Frank Warren has close-cropped hair and a soft voice. He wears blue jeans and glasses. He looks like the average 40-something husband and father. But, as he knows better than anyone, outward appearances often conceal extraordinary stories. Warren is, in fact, the creator of a famous and influential blog; he has published four popular books and launched two travelling art exhibits. He has earned the title of “the most trusted stranger in America.”A simple idea that he set in motion a few years ago has since helped to change, and even save, lives around the world. Standing on stage in Johnson Chapel in front of a rapt audience, he introduced himself simply: “My name is Frank, and I collect secrets.”

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Frank Warren of PostSecret speaks in Johnson Chapel
Warren brings his PostSecret project to colleges and arts centers around North America, and on March 10—to the excitement of fans like me—his tour and the Amherst College Program Board brought him to Amherst. He explained how, four years ago, he printed up a batch of postcards with instructions: People were invited to use the cards to express any truth that they’d never told anyone before and to mail the cards to Warren anonymously at his home in Germantown, Md. “After work, I would drive my car to Washington, D.C., at night and solicit secrets from strangers on the streets,” he said. “Yeah, it was as weird as it sounds.” For a while, he kept the project itself a secret to everyone outside his family; he couldn’t explain exactly what he was trying to do or why, and he never knew how people might react.

The postcards worked: first the secrets trickled in from around the D.C. area, and soon they were pouring in from different states, different continents. Warren began a PostSecret blog, publishing a small sampling of cards every Sunday. To date, he has received more than 300,000 secrets—as many as 200 each day, every one of which he reads and retains in a bin in his family’s house. As I was typing this sentence, the blog was viewed for the 222 millionth time.

During his hour-long presentation, Warren told us of the highlights of his involvement in the project: meeting people who have contributed secrets, inspiring a college student to “out herself” as an anorexic and to educate her classmates about eating disorders, assisting in a marriage proposal. He also showed us a few of the confessions that never made it onto the blog or into the  PostSecret books. They’ve arrived not just on postcards but on X-rays, on deflated balloons, on banana peels and bags of coffee. Some are silly, such as the one that reads, “I like to watch Dr. Phil drunk.” (“I think there’s two ways you can interpret that,” Warren said, “and they’re both pretty funny.”) Others are tales of lost love and cries for help. One of Warren’s favorites is from a former patient in a mental health ward, now recovered; it ends with the message “There is hope.”

Having lost an uncle and a friend to suicide, Warren once volunteered for the  National Hopeline Network, answering phones for a suicide-prevention hotline. Secrets about depression and self-harm show up in his mailbox with alarming frequency. He made the point that, in the United States, suicide is twice and common as homicide. “The statistics are even more staggering on college campuses,” he added. “In our group tonight, in the next 12 months, 50 of us will think about ending our lives. And six of you, right now, are sitting by somebody who will actually try.” The PostSecret project has raised awareness of this problem and more than $500,000 to help prevent it, with visitors to the blog at one point donating enough money to save Hopeline from imminent bankruptcy. Warren believes that keeping secrets sometimes contributes to feelings of frustration, isolation and hopelessness that can turn deadly. “Sometimes, when we think we’re keeping a secret,” he said, “that secret’s actually keeping us.” One of the most effective ways to help those in despair, he believes, is simply to listen—to let them bring forward whatever they’ve been holding back.

The evening included an opportunity for those in attendance to share their own secrets. (The audience consisted almost entirely of Amherst and Five College students, and, curiously, the vast majority were women.) Students lined up at two microphones—some to ask questions about PostSecret; several to thank Warren for his project; others to make confessions about everything from fashion to family to sexual assault. The crowd responded with applause and hugs. Warren closed by reading a postcard he was inspired to send to himself after a stranger’s secret reminded him of a trauma from his own childhood.

As the audience filed out to meet Warren and get their books signed, I noticed a young woman in front of me crying. She was releasing some powerful emotion (whether it was fear or grief or joy, and what exactly was behind it, I will never know), and she was leaning on a friend.

Shooting the Sun

By Katherine Duke '05
Photos by Samuel Masinter '04

Think of the proverbial “billions and billions” of stars in the universe, and the hundreds or thousands we can see from Earth. Now consider that, for centuries before the advent of computers or GPS navigation, experienced sailors used 57 of those stars, plus the sun and moon, to determine their own locations in the vastness of the sea. That’s what 12 students began learning to do in Henry Parker Hirschel’s course, “Celestial Navigation.”

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Ben Lin '12 (left) and Elizabeth Carbone '12 use sextants at Avery Point, Conn.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Hirschel worked his way up to the position of deck officer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; now he’s an instructor captain for the Steamship Authority in Woods Hole, Mass. He’s taught “Celestial Navigation” over Interterm for three years in a row. Some students sign up because they’ve grown up sailing with their families, and others because they’re interested in celestial mechanics on a more theoretical level. (Still others—I’m just guessing here—signed up because they secretly long to be pirates). This year, they spent hours of class time, some of it up on Merrill Beach, learning how to “shoot the sun”—that is, how to measure the sun’s angle in the sky using sextants (“If anyone drops this sextant,” Captain Henry warned them, holding up the most expensive and finely crafted one, “they get sent to Williams College for the rest of the year.”) Then they practiced using their measurements, the relevant tables in the voluminous Nautical Almanac and the necessary arithmetic to figure out their latitude.

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Ryan Milov '10 shoots the sun on Avery Point.
On Thursday, Jan. 21, the students put their skills to use off-campus. I tagged along as the class loaded into a van, with Captain Henry and a student navigator at the helm, and drove to Avery Point on the Groton, Conn., campus of the University of Connecticut. Their first challenge was to look out over New London Harbor and do a “noon sight”—a calculation of latitude based on measurement of the sun’s angle at Local Apparent Noon (the few minutes during which the sun is at its highest point in the sky over a particular location). I had enough trouble just finding the sun in the sextant, but I did enjoy hearing Captain Henry tell of some legendary nautical phenomena, including St. Elmo’s fire and the green flash.

 

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Students in the Celestial Navigation course draw lines on a Mercator plotting sheet.

The next task, a “p.m. sun sight,” was even trickier: The students tookmultiple sextant readings as the sun made its way across the sky, used these readings to draw precise lines on a Mercator plotting sheet, and finally determined our location based on where the lines intersected. I could only vaguely grasp how they were doing this. And to think of how many generations of sailors and mathematicians, how many flashes of genius and rounds of trial-and-error, it must have taken for the human race to invent the sextant and to develop the Nautical Almanac—it was like pondering the size of the ocean or the sky itself.

Captain Henry was pleased with the accuracy of the students’ reckoning of our longitude and latitude—they weren’t far off from what he rather intimidatingly called “Truth.” “I think you’re all to academy standards, as far as I can see,” he said. The next day, as the culmination of the course, the class would go out on an actual boat, to Block Island, R.I. But, the captain reminded them, they were all just at the “neophyte” stage. To get enough real practice at celestial navigation takes nothing short of days and days at sea.

View more photos of the Avery Point trip on the college's Flickr page.

The Blame Game

By Katherine Duke '05

A certain current Amherst student—let’s give her the pseudonym “Cassie”—and her friend made a decoration for Family Weekend this year: a pumpkin with an A carved in it. “We put a strobe light in it,” Cassie says. “I was so proud of it. All my friends said it was the coolest thing they’d ever seen.”

They placed the pumpkin outside of Morris Pratt Dorm, and a few weeks later, over Homecoming, it met its doom. Cassie blames another friend, a member of the football team, for smashing it. “He is known for smashing things,” she says. Last year he got in trouble for throwing dorm furniture and apples, she claims. Plus, the football team was upset about having lost to Williams. And this guy lives in Morris Pratt, and “one of his friends did rat him out.” Cassie’s friend, she says, denies her charge.

This would seem a fairly straightforward whodunit. But, as she and I and the 20 or so other students are learning in the Interterm course “Figuring Out Who to Blame,” pointing a finger is a complicated process with layers of fascinating psychology behind it. “How do we explain others’ actions?” asked instructor Piercarlo Valdesolo ’03, the Robert E. Keiter ’57 Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology. “Every action, every event, there’s some degree of ambiguity. You can’t really know what happened in any given situation.”

To fill in the blanks, Valdesolo has explained, people rely on preexisting knowledge and ideas (which psychologists call schemas). In making a causal attribution—that is, deciding that her friend must have smashed the pumpkin—Cassie was using what she knew of his personality, his past behavior and what kinds of things have happened during past Homecomings. She was inferring what his mood might have been after a losing game. She was also drawing upon stereotypes about football players being rowdy and violent—and though stereotypes are an inevitable part of the human thought process and can be helpful in problem-solving, they don’t always hold true. Even the testimony of the friend who snitched on him might well be false or flawed: people often have motivation to lie, and even when trying to tell the truth, we suffer distortions of memory.

In the class, we’re studying these and other complexities of the blame game. We’ve watched The Thin Blue Line, the 1988 documentary by Errol Morris about a man serving a life sentence after he was falsely accused and convicted of murdering a police officer in Texas. We’ve discussed the 1999 case in which New York City police, thinking that West African immigrant Amadou Diallo was reaching for a gun, opened fire, killing him; he was actually reaching for his wallet. We’ve discussed the McMartin trial, in which an allegation of sexual abuse at a preschool in California spiraled into a witch hunt. Clearly, the psychological processes behind causal attribution can have major legal ramifications—even life-or-death consequences.

More fun are the stories, such as Cassie’s, that students bring in from their real lives. “Emma,” while in high school, was called down to the police department on suspicion of burglarizing her town, just because a neighbor saw Emma’s friends trespassing on his lawn and assumed, and later misremembered, that Emma must have been there too (she was actually out-of-state at the time). “Margo” had a distinct recollection, from when she was 5, of lying to her mother, saying that Peter Pan had flown in her window and cleaned her bedroom. Years later, her mother helped her realize that no such conversation had ever happened—Margo had fabricated not only the story about Peter Pan, but the entire memory of telling that story. “Kurt” told of the time a high school friend asked him to hide cases of empty beer cans from a party, and Kurt spent the whole day strategically concealing the cans all around his house. When his mother came home, the yelling began immediately. He couldn’t imagine how she could have figured out his scheme. “Then I come out to the kitchen,” Kurt said, “and the cases that the beer came in were sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, where I had left them.” This, says Valdesolo, is a classic example of inattentional blindness: being so focused on certain details that we completely miss what should be really obvious.

Valdesolo contributed a story from his own time at Amherst: A student who lived on his hall once called the dean and accused Valdesolo of assault for slamming a door in her face. Our instructor took 20 minutes and even drew a map on the chalkboard to convince us that he did nothing wrong—that the whole thing was a misunderstanding based on unfortunate timing; that it was Valdesolo’s friend who slammed the door, not even knowing that anyone was behind it; and that the dean was right to eventually drop the charges based on testimony from professors and coaches about Valdesolo’s character and record. But, Valdesolo pointed out to us, “I could be lying, for all you know.”      

Hmm…

The Game Plan

Story and photos by Katherine Duke '05

As an innocent Amherst first-year in the fall of 2001, I developed an addiction that has a hold on me to this day. I got sucked into a strange world that’s difficult to explain to those who haven’t visited: a world where we know each other by first and middle initials, last name and class year (I’m kdduke05); where “snooping” and “snitching” are not only socially acceptable but appreciated; and where people who have never laid eyes on each other regularly engage in vigorous debates and develop lasting friendships.

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Gillian Woldorf '01 (gmwoldorf01) baked cupcakes for the Planworld tailgate.

The text-based online community now known as Planworld is ancient compared to LiveJournal, MySpace and Facebook; it has its roots in “the VAX”—the computer processor that Amherst used in the 1980s. Students and faculty could post their “plans” (brief updates on their research and writing) and check one another’s plans. Over the decades, students and alumni—including Jonathan Welch ’84 (jhwelch), John Manly ’85 (jwmanly), Alex Hochron ’02 (anhochron), Seth Fitzsimmons ’02 (snfitzsimmon), Johnnie Odom ’00 (jlodom00), Tosin Onafowokan ’08E (oonafowokan08) and others—have managed and updated Planworld, adding new features and giving it a Web interface. 

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Heather Van Dusen '07 (hrvandusen07), Christopher Burnor '06 (cmburnor06) and James Buchanan '09 (jbuchanan09) planned on rain.

Nowadays, we Planworld citizens (mostly young alumni, with a few current students, significant others and friends) log on daily, check one another’s plans and write whatever we want to share. We post poems, news articles and YouTube clips. We pick one another’s brains with “Plansurveys.” We vent about the personal, the professional and the political. Mostly, we follow the ups and downs of one another’s lives (Someone got laid off. Someone got engaged! Someone got mugged. Someone got a kitten!).

We also use our plans to arrange get-togethers, and a bunch of us decided that this year’s Amherst-Williams Homecoming game should mark the first-ever Planworld tailgate. Parker Morse ’96 (pjmorse96) and Sandy Klanfer ’09 (sklanfer09) did the organizing and grilling. I showed up to Pratt Field with my Amherst employee badge and my camera. Others arrived from Vermont, Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., decked in Amherst gear. We shook hands and hugged and—when necessary—introduced ourselves by our screen names, finally connecting faces to some of the lives we’d been reading about for months and years. Current students talked to those long-since graduated: “What was your major?” “What floor did you live on?” “Your baby is so cute! I’ve been looking at all your pictures!” We chatted about grad school and job searches, pausing only occasionally to check the score of the game. And when the weather crossed over from drizzle to full-fledged rain, we pulled out umbrellas, huddled up and sheltered each other.

Later, Johanna Lunglhofer (who went to a different college and doesn’t have a plan… yet…) asked me and her boyfriend, Solomon Granor ’04 (ssgranor04), how many of those friends we’d actually known when we were students at Amherst. Not many, we realized—we’d met most of them after we graduated, through Planworld. “It’s kind of a community-after-the-fact, huh?” she said. Exactly.

Want to join Planworld? Log in here with your Amherst username and password.

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Woldorf and Heather Reichgott (hreichgo@planworld.net) with their daughter, Tovah, who has been a beloved presence on Planworld all her life.
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The tailgate spanned 16 class years, from Parker Morse '96 (pjmorse96) to Keith Wine '12 (kwine12).
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Three geology majors who rock Planworld: Lisa Smith '09 (lsmith09),
Marissa Drehobl '09 (mdrehobl09) and Sienna Tinsley '08 (stinsley08).

The Infiltrator

Writer Marjan Hajibandeh '09E never had an orientation to call her own. So she found one to crash.

Voices of the Class
Students perform in the 2008 production of Voices of the Class
“Hi. My name is Daniel, and I’m from Chicago.” Daniel sat down next to me in Buckley Recital Hall, and we waited anxiously for the first official event of the semester to begin. He was exactly as I expected him to be: outgoing but a little nervous. The fact that he sat down next to me probably meant he was still searching for a clique, many of which I already witnessed forming around me. It was like the first day of summer camp.

I’m not a first-year student; I had no business crashing his orientation. I tried to blend in, but I soon blew my cover and told him I was a spy. Because I was a spring-semester transfer student, I never had an orientation to call my own. Now that I’m less than a semester away from graduating, I couldn’t help but feel I had missed out on something. So when this year’s First-Year Orientation rolled around, I jumped at the chance to live vicariously through the Class of ’12.

Inside Buckley, President Anthony W. Marx and various deans welcomed the swarm of new students around me. I pretended they were welcoming me as well. When Katie Fretwell, director of admission, shared neat facts about this year’s applicant pool, I waited in vain to hear something about myself. When I attended the DeMott Lecture, Gov. David Freudenthal ’73 of Wyoming directed his speech to everyone sitting for the first time in Johnson Chapel. I was sitting there for perhaps the 20th time.

As the week went on, I ducked my head into every Orientation activity I could. But without a doubt, the event I most wished I could have attended as an insider was Voices of the Class, in which a group of upperclassmen dramatized a cross-section of admission essays written by the entering class. Each monologue gave a short glimpse into one student’s world. The students had given advance permission, and their essays were read anonymously. Still, I felt nervous for them; it’s hard to predict what kind of creative license performers will exercise. Even so, I would have loved the adrenaline rush of being featured on stage—whether it meant being glorified, teased, or outright mocked. For me, the evening was a ritual cleansing of the past and collective transition into the present. The performances invited students to release the grip they held on the past and simultaneously appreciate what brought them to Amherst.

Voices of the Class taught me that one of the first-years—probably someone in the audience around me—hated the way his father followed him around at the mall. Another thought the essay questions from the Amherst application insulted her intelligence. One essay’s description of fashion as a “living, moving art” inspired me to stop dressing like a scrub. My favorite excerpt was from a student who shared the story of her mother’s “ugly hands,” worn and wrinkled from her job as a nail technician. When mother and daughter held hands, it was as though they melted into a single being. She wrote that her own hand was distinguishable only by her writer’s bump—something her mother never had the opportunity to develop.

No person is defined by a single piece of writing—much less an admission essay—but after the performance, I felt so connected to this new group of students that I wanted to be a part of them. As much as I longed to, though, I couldn’t start over. I couldn’t take everything I know now and magically arrive with it on my first day. Neither could I give all the first-years the benefit of knowing all the things that await them. The night made me realize how much I’d soon miss about being an undergrad, but it also gave me a swift kick in the pants. Trying to go back in time to recapture some vague feeling was the most unproductive way I could be spending my last semester. I admit that this nostalgic moment was just a way to avoid planning for the future. It did, however, inspire me to take advantage of all the things I’m missing out on right now—namely, appointments with the Career Center. Now that I’ve stopped avoiding it, I’m excited to plunge into the next chapter of my life, in which I get to make more mistakes and isolate more variables in my character. For the first time, I'm happy to admit that my days at Amherst are numbered.