News & Publications
The College Magazine - Fall 2008
Freshmen still have to contend with their first Don Rag, but at least "running the gauntlet"
is one freshmen experience today's students don't have to endure as these Johnnies did in 1942.
From Freshman to Johnnie
The College posed this question to members of the Class of 2011: Was there a moment during your first year when you felt like you really became a Johnnie? Their answers were as individual as their own personal experiences have been at St. John's, but also reflective of the college as a community of learners.
Hein Myatt, Santa Fe. "It was definitely the moment I first spoke in seminar. It took me a long time to speak up; it was very challenging for me. I'm from Burma, and we didn't have these kinds of discussions in school. I wondered: 'what if I say something really stupid in front of the class?' My tutor, Ms. [Janet] Dougherty, was very encouraging. She said, 'everyone says stupid things at times; you say them, and then you can learn from them.' So, when we were talking about the Odyssey, I was moved by it, and I finally spoke. From there, it got a lot easier."
Jake Simon, Annapolis. "I really became a Johnnie when I realized how deep the Program was, during freshman essay writing. When I was writing on The Sophist, I turned in a rough draft to my language tutor. She told me just to reread it with a question in mind. When I was rereading it, I realized that there is so much more going on than I thought was possible. And then I was like, 'Oh wow, all of the Plato that I've read, I haven't read it at all.' Then feeling that I could spend years going over just this book, The Sophist, just with one question in mind. It makes you feel incredibly impotent, going up against these great minds."
Natasha Barnes, Santa Fe. "There are so many little times when an experience allows you to step outside of yourself for a second and say, 'Oh wow! I'm really a part of this.' It usually hits you right after a class. You're so engaged when you're in the class, so if you're going to have a great experience it's because you aren't thinking about other things in the middle of it. You get out of seminar and start talking to people about it, and all of a sudden you think 'Oh my gosh! This is crazy! I'm in the middle of this, which is exactly why I wanted to be here. So that I could have this kind of experience.' I feel like [as a freshman] you feel something starting, because it's really a longer process. Because you're never aware that it's actually happening until later in the year: you realize that something has changed from when you first got here. That now you're not looking at this community of thinking, you're in the middle of it as much as anybody else is. And that happens throughout the whole year."
Lucy Ferrier, Annapolis. "I think the first time that I sort of became aware that I belonged was coming home from Thanksgiving break. Coming back to the campus, I felt like I was coming home. You have to be away to appreciate it. Everyone was running up to me saying, 'Hi, how are you?' I was back with people I knew, everyone knew who I was, I knew where my stuff was and where my life was based."
Tutor William Darkey leads a mathematics tutorial for the first freshmen in Santa Fe, in 1964.
How many freshman learned to love math because of Euclid?
Anne Deger, Santa Fe. "Although my feelings about being a Johnnie changed over the course of the first year, at the end of the first seminar, sitting around the table, I definitely experienced an 'I've come home' feeling. But I think the most compelling moment-of-Johnnieness I've had has come this year, after talking to freshmen. I feel more a part of it now that I'm introducing other people to St. John's, so perhaps it just took a while to find my place. I am an older student, and this may be part of the problem. I've been disappointed in the lack of rigor I see in some of my fellow students, though I hope that much of this may be attributed to the process of growing up. And that learning to live in a community takes time.
Still, that's a poor excuse for skipping readings or coming to class stoned. My own expectations of the school varied as wildly from the college's nature as my classmates' natures. I'm happy to have had some of those expectations proven false. After years of self-identifying as a liberal arts major, I've discovered a deep love for lab tutorial. The study of grammar now beguiles me, instead of boring me. I even like Ptolemy. I did not expect to love the Program itself as much as I do, even as I find I do not love the culture of the school, the culture that brought me here."
Nathaniel Torrey, Annapolis. "I would say the moment when I really felt like I was 'in the club' was the night I turned my freshman essay in. As soon as that seminar was over, I was in it to win it. From then on I was like, 'I made it.' Because everything else was a weird freshman trial at the college, it was so unknown. I felt like I had done the big thing that everyone else does every year. I wasn't just a freshman who had just shown up. I had actually proven my mettle, I fought, and I deserved to be here."
Nareg Seferian, Santa Fe. "'Does it bother anyone else that these figures can be conceptualized, but not visualized?" Thus spoke a classmate, as we were starting Euclid. No, the circle or triangle, as he describes it, simply cannot exist in 'the real world' (whatever that is). We can think of it, though, think in terms of it, work with it, prove things with it. I think all the time, about all sorts of things, but there come these moments—and I've had a fair few at St. John's already over the past six months—where one is compelled to be extra pensive. It's invigorating and refreshing. 'Good for the soul' is a classic way of expressing it. This 'antiquarian' sense that comes with St. John's is reinforced in Santa Fe by an idyllic setting: nestled amidst hills, with arcades of pillars supporting a small community of learning. Some may criticize the philosophy behind the college, and in response to that, all I can say is this: St. John's is indeed not for everyone, but it fulfills the function of filling the very unique gap it fills, for those who yearn for just such a place. That's what it does for me, anyway."
Dave Maher, Annapolis. "The first time I realized I was a Johnnie was the first time in seminar when I realized that someone hadn't done the reading, and it made me very, very angry. The college is essentially a communal effort to come to learning and these people were not doing their part."
Anna Goold, Annapolis. "Before I got here I had a different view on what I thought a Johnnie was. I just assumed that all my classes and all my seminars would be perfect, that we would get somewhere with all of them, and we would come to great conclusions. I think that changes when you start having classes that aren't that way, and you realize that everyone is struggling through everything. That was the big difference for me, when I felt like I belonged here. It probably was by the end of the first semester freshman year, when I was able to differentiate between it being just seminar and it being awesome. Being able to look at each problem we were discussing, whether it was good or bad, whether I thought it was going somewhere or not, whether I thought it was perfect or not. I think a lot of people [come to the same conclusion]. For a lot of us, this was the only school we applied to and we worship it as this ideal institution. It is kind of when we realize it is not ideal that we realize we are just people grasping at ideas."
Kyouhee Choi, Santa Fe. "Was there a moment when I felt like I really became a Johnnie? Sure. When I balanced a seminar chair. When we do Archimedes, we learn about balance. There's a saying that seniors have: if you can balance the seminar chair, you'll graduate, and if you can't, you won't. I knew that it was stupid and not true, but it irked me anyway. So I was really relieved when I balanced the chair. I even took a picture."
Students at work in freshman laboratory class, circa 1945.
The labs may be more modern, but students still read Galen and Harvey.
Martin Greenwald, Annapolis. "I think it was in the period of the couple of seminars before winter break, when we were reading Thucydides and the Republic, when the workload had picked up, and our seminars picked up. Everyone settled into their routine, everyone got what was going on. One big thing [about being a Johnnie] is being able to take the attitude we have in seminar and try to cultivate that in everyday conversation, try to bring the respect and open-mindedness of seminar to conversation anywhere. Always looking at a text for what it is worth, without prejudging it beforehand. Trying to get a coherent view of the Western canon and our civilization, and where it's been and where it is taking us."
Han Qi, Santa Fe. "One who has gone to a normal college probably would never think of college as personal and humane as St. John's. I certainly never did. From my experience, when a student registers for four courses at a generic school, four professors each demand a considerable portion of his time according to some regimented syllabus, expecting him to produce projects almost every other day—a five-page interpretation of a Shakespeare sonnet on Monday; a Microeconomics presentation, Tuesday; a quiz on Spanish verb forms, Wednesday; and on Thursday, he is supposed to know the difference between Paul's messages to the Corinthians and the Romans.
It is sheer madness. At St. John's there are fewer readings in mathematics, language and laboratory classes, but more focus and more time to reflect and remember. Tutors let students digest rather than devour. A school does not become personal just by having a small pool of students. It has to give students space and time to connect their learning with their life. The moment I felt I became a Johnnie was in my first don rag. A tutor criticized me for being overly prepared. Something as singular as this has only happened to me at St. John's, and I am convinced that for a place so special, you cannot prepare to be ready. You must be here in person to experience it."
Matt Hendershot, Annapolis. "It sort of came gradually, after winter break, maybe, when you're coming back onto campus, and you're no longer a novelty. You're no longer some little freshman, wide-eyed and rubbernecking, talking about how excited you are about the Program. You're still excited about the Program, but you are excited to be a part of it, now. You've faced down your first don rag, sat in real open-faced criticism of yourself and the way you conduct yourself. There's a lot of overblown talk about how it is all about finding a personal philosophy, or coming to rest at home in the classics, but plenty of people do that without ever being Johnnies.
What really makes you a Johnnie is the fact that you are here with all sorts of other people that really want the same thing out of life and out of their education. You and the people around you really come to accept that when you've made it through that first semester. It can be tough. I know my class lost a few, even in the first couple weeks. So I feel like you are really here to stay, and people sort of know that when you step off the plane, and you come back, and it is like coming back home."