“There were screams of joy at the Science Center,” reported Taz Kim ’23. “It felt like when you got the school snow day announcement,” said Andrés Peña Tauber ’23. “There was this immediate reduction of my stress level,” added Sam Grondin ’21.
Those were some of the reactions last Tuesday night to an email blast sent by President Biddy Martin. Its subject line? “Mammoth Day—Classes Canceled.”
This was done, she wrote in this unparalleled time of pandemic, “so that students can get a much-needed break.” (The revised academic calendar has shortened on-campus time and cut fall and spring breaks.) The idea had been urged by Amherst’s COVID-19 Student Task Force. Once Martin and senior staff signed on and named the occasion Mammoth Day, she’d been aggressively watching the weather report to pick the best day.
And so on Wednesday, Oct. 14, hundreds of the students on campus spent a day playing games on the Main Quad, hiking in the Sanctuary, sipping cider and basking amid the jewel tones of a perfect New England fall day. Sapphire sky, emerald grass, ruby, gold and copper leaves. High temperature: 71 degrees Fahrenheit.
As leaves drifted downward, students tossed bean bags toward cornhole boards and sent footballs and flying discs through the air. A few bent over chessboards. Many just lounged in Adirondack chairs. (All activities were produced within the College’s health and safety protocols.)
Blue jays flashed up in the oaks. A small plane made a lazy buzz in the sky.
There were almost no phones or laptops in sight. Dan Gonzales-Kasonsky ’24 and Charlotte Palmore ’24 shared their Mammoth Day motto: “No. Work. Today.”
Meanwhile, others grabbed controllers and played Mario Kart on a big screen set up on one side of the Quad. Students studying at home could also play video games with those on campus, and online activities were offered to these temporarily diasporic classmates, too.
Most Amherst students know about (and, OK, are envious of) the spontaneous classes-cancelled traditions in nearby colleges. Mountain Day at Smith dates from 1877 and Mount Holyoke from 1838.
Mammoth Day (“not Mountain Day,” clarified Martin in her email) was a modern first at Amherst, but with an asterisk: the upcoming 2021 Bicentennial has prompted reflection on which College traditions bear renewing, and Amherst used to have its own Mountain Day. It started loosely in the mid-19th century and was formally voted into the calendar in 1874, and voted out in 1933.
One Amherst Student writer covered the 1874 Mountain Day, which featured a hike up Mt. Toby. He ended his article with a little hyperbole and strategic flattery: “Soon the rest of us took up the road to Amherst, arriving there in early evening, and after eating a hearty supper we went to sleep, dreaming of heaven, and bliss, and angels, and all other good things, including our college Faculty.”
Today’s students may not have dreamt of faculty, but postponed coursework was definitely the stuff of dreams. “I had a lab report due that I hadn’t started, so that email made me extremely happy,” said Nat Edmonds ’24. (Cancelled classes will be made up Nov. 30, during reading period.) Other students told me they stayed up late on Tuesday just because they could: One group watched the movie Knives Out, another group played charades, and others read for pleasure.
The COVID-19 Student Task Force advised Martin to send the announcement email the night before, so students would know they could sleep in.
Indeed, this reporter naively showed up on the Quad around 10 a.m. and found maybe three students about, and you could all but see the zzzzs in the sky. Maya Foster ’23 said of that Wednesday morning: “It looked like Sunday morning around here.”
On the Quad, after 2 p.m., students formed a long line to the cider-and-pastry tent, where Martin was standing. Will Marshall ’24 spotted her, and did a little joke bow of gratitude. He thanked her, and the Facilities and Dining departments, for pulling off Mammoth Day. She chatted with a bunch of students. All had masks on, but you could suss out smiles just the same.
I asked for her thoughts on the occasion: “I’m just so delighted that the weather is good and the students are enjoying each other,” said Martin.
And then I met a first-year student named Ari Dengler ’24—who has only known Amherst during the pandemic. She smiled (at least I think so) and said: “This is the most normal college student thing that has happened since I’ve been here.” Just over her shoulder, above the Mario Kart screen, sailed a red-tailed hawk, lit by the sun.