The second day of school was harder than expected. After purchasing my freakishly heavy textbooks from Labyrinth and grabbing a cup of coffee, I figured it was time to plan out the rest of my afternoon. First order of business: take a nap. Second order of business: at least try to print out the problem set due in two days.
After checking the thirty-second Butler Buzz email of the day, I put away my phone and glanced up past Nassau Hall. I caught a glimpse of something I had only heard about in jokes: campus tourists. This group happened to be taking semi-oblique photos of East Pyne, commenting at the sundial on the south side of the building. I couldn’t make out their conversation, but I imagine it went something like this: “Ah, Gertrude, isn’t there just something so collegiate about a sundial?” “Why yes, Harry, how else would you keep time? Digital clocks? How pedestrian!” Then they share a chortle and sip some sherry.
Overcome with an inexplicable impulse, I straightened up my naturally slouching shoulders. I took a math textbook out from my Labyrinth bag, and hoped the tourists would see the words “Vector Calculus” printed across the top. I whipped out my phone and began screaming into it, “and then Eisgruber was like, ‘Zach. You can’t be a Rhodes Scholar and a Marshall Scholar! You have to pick one!’ And I was like, ‘Dude. I’m just tryna make it to the UK next year. They just have such a good biotech industry.’” The thought crossed my mind to enter Nassau Hall, even though I’m not entirely sure I have prox access.
Assuming an alternative self when walking past tourist groups has become second nature in my first few weeks here. Last week, I passed an Orange Key tour group and nearly body-slammed the door to McCosh 50 so they would notice me entering (I don’t have a single class in McCosh 50). A few days ago, a couple stopped me to ask how to find Firestone Library. After pointing them in the right direction, I reminded them that there’s an early draft of the Declaration of Independence in the basement, in case they were interested in a dose of history.
In putting on garish shows for random tourists, I’m reminded of my first tour of Princeton. My dad and I embarked on an East Coast sweep, touring every potential school from south (Johns Hopkins) to north (a school in New Haven). In typical fashion, we arrived late for the Orange Key tour and hastily caught the tail end of the last departing group of students. I had my phone out to take notes on attractive properties of Princeton in case the application asked why I was interested in attending (it didn’t). In retrospect, it wasn’t the astounding architecture that really caught my eye—although I did take about fifty pictures of the chapel—or even the hallmark senior thesis that engaged my attention. I was enthralled in a riveting game of people-watching. Specifically, Princeton-student-watching. Are these people even real? I thought. Are they all incredibly brilliant? Why is everyone wearing Sperry’s?
Even now, after the grueling cycle of applications and matriculation, I find myself Princeton-student-watching, wondering to myself when my place among the student body here will become more apparent. I take the advice of upperclassmen seriously: there is a consensus that only with time comes security of one’s own place. With each passing day, I truly do feel somewhat more grounded. Even though my footing isn’t quite as stable as I’d like it to be, going step by step is good enough for now.
However, in the sporadic moments of sudden existential dread that strike during long walks in between classes, clear sight of a prospect of peace and security becomes blurred past a point of recognition. In those moments, I seek an immediate and effective remedy. I flash the titles of my textbooks to unsuspecting strangers and begin fabricating audacious conversations with the president of the university at a perfectly audible level. Because if some random tourist believes I’m supposed to be here, other people must think so, too, right?
The objective answer is a resounding “no.” In boasting to tourists about nonexistent accomplishments, I’ve become increasingly aware of how little they notice and how much less they acknowledge. The only time I got a tourist to actually look at me was when I tripped over a crack in Firestone plaza and dramatically threw my neuroscience textbook to the ground. She did not seem impressed with any of my accomplishments.
Instead of noticing me, the campus tourists seem to be more interested in those who walk by casually as if strolling past a collection of shrubs. In between dropping my two hundred dollar plus textbooks and pretending to care that there’s a draft of the Declaration of Independence in Firestone, I’ve been wondering why tourists seem more interested in students who pay them no mind than those who, like me, put on acrobatic-like shows for attention. Is it the way they dress? Maybe they all just coincidentally vaguely remind the tour groups of a celebrity whose name they can’t quite remember.
Last week, I was discussing my weird fascination with the campus tourists with some freshmen in my OA group. We discussed what it means to get an education as part of some grand spectacle. Of course we change our attitudes in the presence of tourists: we’re just playing our role in the largest-cast telenovela in history. In the presence of tourists, we pretend we know how to walk the walk and talk the talk, because the reality of the situation couldn’t be more contrary. In the presence of tourists, we get an escape from wondering if we belong here and instead get to pretend that we’re one-hundred percent confident in our place at Princeton.
Upperclassmen, however, seem not to share the same interest in tourism on campus. In fact, many of the upperclassmen I’ve talked to don’t even notice them. They might have once, but, like many trivial things, campus tourism has faded into the background noise of everyday life. Or, maybe they do still notice, but now the tourists no longer hold any sort of significance. Tourists are no longer judicious spectators—they’re just regular people meandering around, wondering why so many buildings have sundials on them.
This attitude of nonchalance is intimidating. How could someone be so well-situated that they feel no need to prove themselves? The intimidation eventually gives way to admiration: I wish I could be that self-assured. Maybe that’s why tourists seem more interested in students who pay them no mind. After all, when I was touring Princeton my first time, I was struck by the students that didn’t even notice the tour groups, the ones with direction and purpose. They were the ones who sought no validation from anyone, least of all people who didn’t even go to their school. These were the people I looked up to and thought about when writing my application essays, rather than anyone who engaged in one-sided conversations about Rhodes Scholarships just loud enough for me to hear them.
It would be a far-fetched lie for me to say that after writing this piece, I suddenly have a resolve not to care about tourists, to walk past them without changing my posture a little. Planning my indifference would be, itself, an expression of how much I care about what tourists think of me. Now I know that I need to look for validation in a new location. I don’t mean traditional places: in the classroom, on sports teams or in my friend group. The search needs to be internal; I need to prove to myself that I deserve to be here.
How do I do that? I have absolutely no clue.
What I do know is that despite the impulse to impress casual strangers, my place here is not—and never will be—defined on external parameters. I could be wearing khakis, a button-down and Sperry’s or sweatpants, Birkenstocks and socks, and tourists would be equally unimpressed with me. There’s something liberating in that realization: my efforts and contortions are futile, so why continue with them?
So for now, I’ll walk up and down campus without keeping an especially deliberate vigil for tourists. If I catch one in the corner of my eye, my first instinct will be to straighten my posture and raise my phone to my ear. But I can also be mindful of what my reasoning is for putting on airs for somewhat inconsequential people. In time, mindfulness will trump a search for validation, and, as the tourists begin to fade into the white noise of campus life, I can finally enjoy a leisurely walk up-campus, knowing full well that I deserve to be here—with or without a class in McCosh 50.