The Bennington July Program is a month-long thing where you go and immerse yourself in learning, whatever it is you want to learn. It's good. It's at Bennington College, and it's for people who are ages 15-18. I'm not going to write one of those kinds of reviews that ends with a phrase like "I'd recommend this to any motivated and smart and overachieving high-schooler!" because that won't tell you anything. It wouldn't do this program justice. So my plan is to tell you the feel of the place, the people there, the atmosphere. You decide if its wonderful. You decide if it's a mind-altering and great place.
You can buy ice cream at the snack bar there and put on chopped-up Reese's Pieces if you want. At night there are candle-lit poetry readings at the end of the world (a great grassy cliff). There are bathtubs. If you need to cry but you don't really want to in front of your roommate, this is the place. You can sit there fully clothed and stretch out your legs and feel safe. Also you can sit in the empty tub late at night with a friend and eat Fla*vor Ice. There are also nice showers with endless supplies of hot water. There are free performances of different kinds almost every night (For instance, the Nuyorican Poets, readings by Jamaica Kincaid and others, African drumming and live bands).
I can't vouch for any of the other houses, but mine was fun. All houses are relatively small and have a living room with couches and nice reclining chairs (which sometimes fall over backwards when you lean back too far). People climb through the windows in the living room instead of using the door. It's a lot faster.
In my house we'd sit in the living room talking and occasionally dancing to (of all things!) Swedish pop, disco, and early Madonna. We listened to the same Etta James song a million times in a row until people started covering their ears and screaming "No!" whenever someone went near the CD player. My three RAs were quirky, great people who we could talk to about anything. They weren't authoritative or patronizing, though they could lay down the law quite nicely. We'd forget that these people were being paid to be our guardians - they were great friends, only a couple of years older than us.
It is all very laid-back at Bennington. Teachers are all called by their first names. They aren't placed on pedestals, they weren't authoritarian. A lot of them are really young (mid-thirties). They are people you can talk with and eat lunch with. The thing about teachers at Bennington is that they're people. You learn directly from someone whose lifework isn't teaching about art or dance or writing. It's doing art or dance or writing. (All writing teachers are published authors.) Learning isn't watered down with homework grades and lesson plans and bathroom passes.
Days consist of any pattern of classes, tutorials (which for me was just chatting with my teacher about my work and ourselves) meals and electives. Mostly you have plenty of time for anything you want to do. Spend hours sitting with friends. Listen to music. Smuggle food out of the cafeteria. Develop photographs, paint, read, write, learn how to knit. Play volleyball, learn massage, form a band, dance. Sleep. Do anything.
Don't be put off by this place because it's called an "intensive pre-college experience." It doesn't mean it's only for high-achieving students with high GPAs. Those people fit well at the July Program, but most people don't fit that description at all. You're good for this program if you want to learn. It doesn't matter if you get straight A's or straight F's - if you've proved yourself to be intelligent and able to do all the work during the July Program, you'll be accepted. They know that grades don't necessarily prove intelligence.
Okay - I have to break the promise I made earlier: "if you're (this kind of person), you'll love this place."
If, like me, you hate most things in high school (being forced to adhere to rules, staying in a school building all day, having boring teachers) ... and yet you know that you're a creative person who loves learning (even if your grades don't show it), then this is a good place for you. It's just like college. You have freedom to go where you please and also freedom to learn the way you want to learn. You can go barefoot (but beware of bees); you can run in the halls. Classes are challenging and productive and fun. I can't personally vouch for every single one, but Fiction and Voice Tutorial (the two classes I took) were in-depth, intensive, metamorphisizing experiences. And, from what I heard from other people, the other classes were, too. The entire experience exceeds all of your expectations. There are no grades (evaluations, instead) and no seats in the back where you can sit and tune out. You can be alive there. It might be (like it was for me) the beginning of the rest of your life. I know that sounds cheezy, but it is true.
P.S. This place is also for you if you are highly motivated and want college-level courses instead of the regular high school doo-dah. There are courses with cool names like "Cancer, AIDS, and the New Genetics," "Gender Studies," "Performance: On Stage," "Adolescent Psychology," and "Environmental Dilemmas." The possibilities are endless ... isn't it exciting? I've forgotten to tell you a lot of things, but that's what the July Program booklet brochure thingy is for. If you want to get it, write to them, c/o Bennington College, Bennington, VT 05201 and ask for it. (Tell them you heard about it from me in The 21st Century.) L
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.