Summer Academy — Swerving to St. John’s

In anticipation of this year’s Summer Academy season, I find myself reflecting on my journey to St. John’s, my own time at the Academy, and last year’s experience as a Residential Assistant (RA).

The St. John’s Summer Academy changed the trajectory of my life. I am reminded of the Lucretian concept of “the swerve;” an atomic movement that the epicurean and poetic scientist attributes to free will (in a sense), the cause of all motion. In the compilation of any community, hundreds of little swerves are necessary. Maybe none is so grand as the beginning of the universe, rows of atoms falling like rain until one just… shifts. The feeling, though, of transitioning from one stage of life to another is proportional. We each must will for change.

I come from a high school graduating class of over 900 students, but it wasn’t really a community. Stuck in classrooms where peers feared being called on by teachers, and teachers feared being questioned by students, there was no love to motivate. Aristotle will introduce the prime mover in the freshman year curriculum, the idea that the beloved moves the lover; Kepler will call a similar concept, species, the force that moves the planets around the sun. Love—philia, eros, agape—creates a desire within us; a will to move, and that motion carries us for the rest of our lives.

When I was accepted to the Foundations of Freedom session of the Summer Academy, I was passively excited. I had applied, for the most part, due to the frequent prodding of my brother in law. He, my sister, and my father all attended St. John’s Annapolis for undergrad. During my college search, I was relatively apathetic to the program, not wanting to follow my family; at seventeen, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of turning into my father– we already have the same face, and that was enough for me, thank you. Nonetheless, there is something beautiful about being told that you are wanted. So, like the beloved, I moved.

After arriving, and settling into the same room my sister stayed in her freshman year, on the third floor of Randall Hall, I was prepared to be disappointed. I’d done all of the readings, and dreaded the moment I might discover that I was the only one. But here’s the thing about St. John’s, a secret from me to you: the students who want to do well academically are the students who do well socially. If you are willing to put in the work, you will make great friends in and through the great books. I discovered this quickly, in the first “guerrilla seminar” on Notes on Dialogue, by Stringfellow Barr. The RAs facilitated the conversation, but they weren’t the ones leading the discussion. And here’s the swerve: the room buzzed with minds that craved questions as much as answers, that enjoyed mystery flavored dining hall ice cream, and that wanted to swing dance the night away. It was a shift in perspective, a discovery of home, the beginning of love.

That was it. As simple as a swerve, a will to move. It didn’t matter that my roommate stayed up too late Skyping her boyfriend, or that the humidity makes my hair crazy. The people, that’s what’s worth coming for. Every time.

Last spring, at the closing of my own freshman year, I applied to work as a Summer Academy RA. Aristotle said that “memory is the scribe of the soul.” Filling out that application brought back memories of croquet on the front lawn, swing dancing in the great hall, awful renditions of “Wonderwall” at the open mic night, endless Monopoly. My soul had written it all down, and I reflect on those articles often, looking to them for guidance.

Working as an RA, I found, is wildly different from attending the Academy. The experience is no longer for me. I became a facilitator, watching all of the Atoms and Eves coasting through the week. I had this amazing opportunity to watch incredibly impressive kids grow. These campers were inquisitive, kind, curious, so engaged. Sometimes I like to think that one of my Summer Academy RAs thought the same about my group, but it never felt that way. I never felt impressive, and maybe I wasn’t, but these kids will blow you away. They aren’t Johnnies—yet—but at the end of any given session, the RA’s get to watch something beautiful. It’s almost better than experiencing it, watching other little swerves.

I can’t wait to do it again.