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?
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