As I stood outside the door to Frist 212 on the first day of my freshman year, waiting for my Arabic 101 class to start, a bright-eyed boy in a polo shirt bounced up to the door. I smiled at him, and he stood weirdly close to me, clutching his books. I was unnerved. Soon, though, the door opened, and we entered. My Princeton academic career had begun.
The 12 of us introduced ourselves, delighted to discover we were all here for the right reasons. We were fascinated by Middle Eastern culture, we wanted to travel there, we wanted to be president one day. We were friendly and congenial, sizing each other up. The boy in the polo’s eyes matched his shirt and I tried to decide whether he was cute or not. When our eyes met for the fourth or fifth time, he smiled, and I decided I liked him. (That weekend, at Cloister, he became my first Princeton DFMO. He also dropped the class. It is still unclear to me whether or not the latter had anything to do with the former.) We spent the fifty minutes watching videos of mouths—some with bristly hairs poking out over dry lips, some with uneven teeth, some smooth and shapely—that spat and whistled and sliced open syllables that, one day, we hoped would roll from our tongues just as easily.
For me, that day would never come. Though I’d entered college thinking I was simply one of those people who was good at languages, studying Arabic shoved me into a different realization: what I was good at was English. I had taken Spanish and French in high school and allowed my comfort in my native tongue to whisk me through their Latinate vocabularies, but I had mistaken this for universal aptitude. I didn’t have any of the skills needed to be good at Arabic: willingness to memorize long lists of vocabulary, neat handwriting, meticulous attention to diacritics. I hated checking my own work, I hated looking up how to spell words, and I wasn’t going to expend any extra effort for a good grade.
So, as I waited for the excellent grades that I couldn’t believe wouldn’t come, I half-did my homework. I figured out ways to trick the website that tracked homework into marking videos as “watched,” vocab as “listened to.” We were supposed to spend two hours a night on homework, so I spent an average of thirty minutes. I did exactly the bare minimum. I got zero As.
I’d never been a “bad” student before, but it was easier than I thought it’d be. I stared blankly at my teacher and never participated. I rolled my eyes at students who made flash cards. I texted during class. I was late almost every day, and hung-over most Fridays, always holding a coffee.
I didn’t fail. I didn’t even get that bad of a grade, in the grand scheme of things, but it was definitely one of the lowest in the class. This year, as a sophomore, I took two more weeks of Arabic 102 before I dropped it. Somehow, it was worse than 101. I think this is because the class was at 10 am, not 11, and that early hour induced in me a crackling rage. After I spent an entire class fantasizing about pushing a girl onto the floor because she sat too close to me, I realized the class had become about my own hatred for it, and all I was learning was how to be lazy and cranky. So I dropped. And it still feels good.