To some residents of northern Indiana, the sight of a crocus, daffodil or robin signals the arrival of spring. But I watch the Stepan basketball courts for the first signs of hoopster activity. From my fifth-floor Grace Hall window I will spy a couple of guys in T-shirts and shorts shooting in the breezy air, followed later — as the afternoons warm and the days lengthen — by games of two-on-two, then some full-court up-and-down, and then by that climactic spring tradition called Bookstore.
Spring does come to South Bend, despite rumors to the contrary, despite all the grousing about the winters and the cold rains and sharp winds and that low gray ceiling of cloud. Spring at Notre Dame is a fleeting celebration of youth and life and promise, as glorious as the next generation of fuzzy yellow ducks and geese twirling about the lakes. For those of us who work here, it is a time to bypass campus mail in order to hand-deliver reports and manuscripts and to personally return books to the library, to maybe take a walk at noon or find other reasons to cross the quads.
Rock songs pulse airborne from speakers pointed out residence hall windows, making springtime feel like a music festival. Blankets are spread upon the ground and students, mostly women in tanktops and shorts, pretend to read Madame Bovary or to highlight passages of biology text with yellow markers. But mostly they are watching — the students sailing Frisbees, the guys playing catch (the baseball popping into mitts), the other girls and boys strolling by. There is laughter and footballs in the air and students calling to one another from window to sidewalk. Joggers encircle the lakes; students ditch that late-afternoon class.
The intellectual life, so much with us through the cold, dark days of serious winter, seems heavy and dense and oddly irrelevant on these soul-popping afternoons of flight and sun, openness and libido. There are shoulders and torsos, windblown hair and bare midriffs to admire. The life of the mind, the earnest causes and soul-stirring profundities get supplanted by . . . a gust for living.
Some students pull couches out of the dorm and set up an outdoor living room on the thick green carpet of grass. Others take slow walks at sunset. Others remember the term paper due, the class presentation tomorrow, the final exams next week. Butterflies do not live long. They labor through stages — larval, pupal — to emerge from their cling-wrap cocoon. Then they dance and flit, caper and cavort, joy in the sunshine, all too quickly disappear. So it is with these students in the spring. The winter trudging and hibernation, the deliberations and consternations give way to a springtime flourish and flaring, a profusion of life — then they are gone.
They are here one Friday when you leave work for the day. They are absent by Monday when you return to campus. Dumpsters overflow with rolled rugs and splintered lofts, lumpy chairs and black plastic bags of leftovers. But the students are missing.
What they leave behind is a stillness, a calm, the quiet greenery and placid lakes. Summer session students are only a small fraction of the school-year enrollment; many faculty leave. Except for the transient populations of visitors, sports camp kids and advanced high school students warming up for college, the place empties out.
The pace is more relaxed, the workplace a little less formal. Even summer school is a different experience from the long haul of the academic year. The typical four-month semester is crammed into six or seven weeks. The classes are daily. The workload is more concentrated, more intense. And yet the feel of it all seems more personal — perhaps because the interactions between student and prof are daily, perhaps because the smaller cadre of students makes for a more companionable atmosphere.
Sometimes I think of summer here as a secret place that more students (and alumni) should know about. Sometimes I think everyone should spend a summer here; there’s an intimacy possible at no other time. But then I’m glad that fewer of us have the place to ourselves; it’s like staying on at the beach cottage in the off-season.
By mid-August you’re ready for the student migration once again, the energy and newness of another semester, the sharpness of the coming fall. Actually, sometimes I think fall is the best season of all at Notre Dame. Sometimes I think it’s mainly winter that’s hard, and it has its merits, too, although it is usually in spring or summer that I think fondly of the special qualities of winter.
Notre Dame Magazine, summer 2002