The first time I ever saw a samovar was on a hot summer day in Western Massachusetts. After sitting in—we’ll call him Professor R, because that’s how the Russian authors tend to do with the folks who populate their novels—after sitting in Professor R’s office on the second floor of Webster Hall for what seemed like an hour (the man can fit more words into a minute than athletes can fit food onto their trays at Val), he led me on a tour of the Center for Russian Culture. For me, as a kid whose cultural centers up to that point only included an archive of Complex magazine issues and an encyclopedic knowledge of Rap City: Tha Basement episodes, it’s fair to say the Russian center at Amherst had a different feel: two stories of ceiling-to-floor bookshelves crammed with priceless editions from Russia’s long lineage of literary titans; the type of plush rugs and swanky furniture that suggested a mash-up of academia and old Park Avenue; walls adorned with real Soviet propaganda posters and artwork; and, of course, samovars—many, many samovars. One might even say too many samovars.

Now, why Professor R donated his time to a prospective student at the request of the men’s basketball coach on a random summer day, when he undoubtedly had more important things to attend to—such as curating the largest private collection of Russian books and materials in the West—I have no clue, but I do know that moments like those constituted the absolute best of my time at Amherst.

A photo of a man with a dark beard looking seriously at the camera
“I will carry these kindnesses to the end of my journey.”

My love affair with the Russian department and quest for a Russian major were not without the ugly that all relationships contain on occasion. I had a professor who would try to teach me grammar only using basketball analogies, as if my whole worldview were tethered to the sport and there were no way I could fathom the mechanics of a case language otherwise: imagine Finding Forrester but without the charisma of Rob Brown (shout out Amherst class of ’08) or the beauty of a Gus Van Sant film. There was also the Russian professor who asked to read my fiction thesis and went on to tell me, “It’s good, but it’s not your voice,” as if it never occurred to him that the way I speak in class might not be my standard mode of operation moving through the world. While there were micro- and macroaggressions aplenty from students, staff and faculty, to me they will always be outweighed by the instances of superhuman benevolence.

I walked into my thesis adviser’s office—we’ll call her Professor A—a week after my father died to discuss a short story I’d recently submitted, only to have her come from behind the desk, hug me and then take a seat next to me instead of back at her professorial mount. It was late fall, not the hot-cider-and-homecoming-festive stretch but the part of the season that turns cold and grim. I sat in all my layers, still thawing. She asked: How are you? And I was shocked by this, her refusal to talk about the pages I’d submitted (other than to commend me for turning them in), because deadlines and revisions had no place in her immense well of humanity—a well I hope I’ve poured enough back into over this decade that we’ve remained close. Lord knows I’ve drawn plenty from it.

During the pandemic, I looked at photographs via Zoom on a call with Professor—we’ll say Professor F. I looked at photos of Professor F’s children, now knocking on young adulthood, and one picture of Professor F’s whole family, partner and dog included, all caught in a moment of candid joy before or after the stylized pose. Seeing these photos, I smiled so hard and from such a deep place, because, though my life may not be filled with the same boundless promise I may have imagined for myself at 18, I’ve been so unbelievably fortunate to reap heartful after heartful of warmth and strength from the superhumans I crossed paths with at Amherst who’ve kept me in their lives.

Just this past May, while my wife, dog and I moved across the country, all our worldly belongings stuffed into a rented RV or inconveniently bestowed upon our family and friends, the night after our 150-pound pup had a seizure midtrip and we sat bundled in our winter gear in South Dakota (because apparently South Dakota ain’t about spring sprung in May) wondering how in the world we’re going to get our dog the rest of the way to L.A. in one piece, a video message popped up on my phone. It was from an Amherst homie—we’ll call him MC—to show me his pops holding my recently published story up to the camera, about to read it.

I lay in the RV bed in my winter coat next to my wife and dog, and I cried.”

This is the same pops who—during the school breaks I would stay at their home—used to give us game on so many things my pops never gave to me, the same pops who was proud of me when being a writer was just a dream so many people thought was bullshit at best and laughable at worst. The video played MC’s words first: Think about it, just a kid from Rhode Island. His pops was swift to offer a correction, saying to the camera: He was never just anything—all of your friends from there had hope and promise… . And I can’t lie: I lay in the cold-ass RV bed in my winter coat next to my wife and dog, who’d both finally fallen asleep as the first light spilled into the sky, incessant traffic from I-90 continued to crash over the RV lot where we’d parked, and I cried, because my gratitude was too large to hold any other way.

Throughout my time at Amherst and far beyond, these inexplicable generosities have accrued and coalesced into something larger than the sum of their parts. To call this compilation the Amherst experience would be inaccurate, or at least incomplete, but I will carry the opportunity, or wonder, or wisdom given to me from these kindnesses to the end of my journey. And hopefully, if I’ve learned anything from these most deeply human of humans, I’ll give heaping portions back along the way.

Holmes is the author of the story collection How Are You Going to Save Yourself. He won the Howe Prize for fiction at Amherst and received a fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is currently writing for Showtime’s City on a Hill and working on his first novel.

Photograph by Julie Keresztes ’12