This is where I think I end.
When I wake up it’s a mixture of hospital baby-blue and sugar-coated pills and no I didn’t really do that. The crooks of my elbows are bruised from the needles. And something, something, whispers that this is only the beginning of the grief, and I am not at Princeton, I am ugly-crying in an ugly room begging my social worker to let me go back to Princeton.
It’s almost funny. For some reason I really thought I’d never see Princeton again. I’m stupidly in love with the place, if you want me to be honest (which you should never want), but you should have seen me when the trees on Washington first parted. Really. When I saw the kids on bikes and the FitzRandolph gate bathed in orange light for the first time.
It was like ugly crying, but not in a bad way—not in a bad way at all.
Three weeks before the end of my freshman year I am sent voluntarily (if being optionless and scared is considered voluntary), to a psychiatric ward. This technicality doesn’t matter. Neither does the hellish mental state I’ve had for years, or the diagnoses they hand over laminate counters. What matters is that on the first night, I roll over and look over at the dresser. Something is carved into the wood.
I love you honey
come home soon
and be nice to me
I roll back over, and guess what. I don’t sleep because it isn’t Princeton.
When I wake up for my first full day as an inpatient (note: not a student), my hair has not been washed in three days and ghosts come out my eyes and nose.
You can place grief sometimes, sure. Blue scrubs. Saying I’m sorry too often. Drinking too much. Being one week clean and a father of three. I can place my own grief in a lot of boxes, too, but in this clinic, away from Princeton, I blame it on geography. You have to see it, I swear. The clinic. It has jelly flowers stuck to the windows of what they called the Sun Room, and Mike the NYU French major from ‘84 always wears Uggs when he meditates. Shaun the Mental Health Technician looks like the American Psycho guy and once described guacamole as “avocado sauce.” And during this, during all of this madness, I sit alone in a dining room (a tiny room) and write until my heart falls out of my chest.
What’s that John Green saying? About falling in love slowly, then all at once. Yes—this is the one thing I’d say he might be right about. Because after I begrudgingly washed my hair and put on pajama pants and started doing puzzles with the rest of the depressed people, I fell.
It’s funny, too, that this is what my book has been about for the past three years, this kid who’s really really pissed off about being committed to a psychiatric ward, and he just wants out, but then he realizes he’s fucked because somebody makes him laugh. He—
Actually, I don’t think I’m going to humor John Green after all. I didn’t fall in love like that. Instead I came out of this place laughing, and isn’t that the principle of the thing? Isn’t that the principle of the whole damn thing?
So this is my freshman year, I realize, after I’m discharged—sitting in the front seat of a Public Safety car, talking about Staffordshire and literary theory and the Civil War with the officer beside me. He wants to know what I want to be. I want to be a writer, of course. We all know that—every inpatient at the clinic knows that—because it’s in my bones. Also I never shut the fuck up about it.
It takes one week of inpatient care in a psychiatric ward for my real freshman year to begin, and I don’t even think about the twenty-minute drive as we talk. I’m too excited to go home and start looking at English Department requirements. I’m too excited to see Wilcox. Besides, the clinic is behind me now. College is ahead. And the necklace I made in therapy sits heavily on my collarbone as the topic switches back to Princeton.
(The bead reads happy, if you really care to know.)
So yes, Princeton is a bit like my religion, but that’s not saying a lot. Everything I love is my religion. I love being ankle-deep in puddles of warm rain; I love dogs that won’t come near you yet because they’ve been beaten. I love flannel. I love Franny & Zooey. I love that I’m confused about everything, and I love the people who take pictures on the steps of Nassau Hall.
I love being alive.
You may or may not be surprised that I cry of happiness the first night I’m back on campus. That’s the funniest part of this whole damn reflection. I cry and I cry and I cry because Salinger once said that all we ever do is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next, and he’s never wrong, not in my book, and I’m back at Princeton. I’m at Princeton and I’m in love and it’s my freshman year. This is where I begin.
Q. “Describe what you do in five lines.”
A. “I DO_________.
These words terrified me the first time I heard them. They’re from this audio-visual piece entitled “Flesh.” Its creator, a phonetics-obsessed artist by the name of Hanne Lippard, has a knack for stringing similar-sounding words (although the DID and DIE in this sequence is a bit simple) in sequences that can’t help but make you feel a bit small. I first tried to fill in the blanks during intersession in January, and I’ll try to do so again now.
I DO spend a lot of my free time in the evenings watching Family Guy on my laptop. Not full episodes, but merely short clips. The jokes are pretty dry to me by now, since I’ve spent the past three years finishing my nights with these same snippets. You could call them some sort of nightcap, but they often numb far more than they loosen. An hour or so in, I’m not really thinking about which one to click on next, or, for that matter, really thinking at all.
I DON’T like thinking about those articles I frivolously read every day before I had to decide which college I’d attend. The ones that told you about the Ivy League grads who had midlife crises in their twenties—those years meant to be filled with fast-paced superlatives, but were instead spent wondering if they’d wasted their liberal arts education as they worked in cubicles at jobs they despised. Boo-hoo, I’d think. Thank God that wasn’t me—I was different. I arrived at Princeton believing that I’d quickly be united with some lifelong passion I finally had the chance to discover.
I DID everything I could to get in here, and like others, I followed the rules. I was taught that grades and scores are important, but activities and essays maketh the acceptee. There were the internships at digital media agencies and art museums, the three-day weekends spent at speech and debate tournaments around the country. While I typically enjoyed these activities, I sometimes wondered if what I really enjoyed was receiving the trophies and talking (boasting) about my jobs to my peers. But this was completely natural. I’d read about this, too. We’re programmed to love winning, to go out of our way to indulge this lust for short-term achievement. I understood the prophesies, but, as I said before, college for me was going to be different. There, I’d overcome this shallow reward system. I pictured myself experimenting with film, philosophy, fiction, music, and all that other good stuff designed to lead to peace and a career so gratifying you won’t even have to call it a career.
I DIDN’T think that it would hit me as hard as it did that one night when I was watching Family Guy in my bed. When it dawns on you that you’re in the last month of your first year in college and so little has changed, it’s tough. Have you found your passion? Do you like the thoughtlessness that these countless hours of Family Guy provide? Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and tell myself that I’ve found a purpose through writing fiction or music reviews. Those are my fortunate days. On the unfortunate ones, I remember that more than anything, I live to win. My passions lie in applying for competitive internships and desired freshman seminars. They lie in clinging to a professor’s compliment—now fewer and farther between—just to know that someone thinks I’m a winner, if only for a moment. Winning is a concentration offered at Princeton that you won’t find in your admissions booklet. Many of us have fulfilled a variety of prerequisites for it before even stepping on campus. What Winning majors won’t talk about, however, is that sometimes it can feel like it’s always been too late to switch departments.
I DIED many years from now after retiring from a job I loved and leaving a notable legacy in a field that gave me genuine purpose at every twist and turn! I never quite know how to answer this section. Before I die, I’d like to have written something substantial for the admits to these types of schools about how reading the articles and books that describe your potential for an unfulfilling education doesn’t make you immune to a grim future. But then again, like other elements of my freshman year, that aspiration isn’t very original. It’s a humbling experience, coming to this school, realizing that you aren’t as extraordinary as you thought you were, not because you feel like you don’t belong, but because you realize that you might just fit the stereotype of that lost sheep after college. SHEEP DIE often times in pretty terrible ways, come to think of it. Maybe that’s a bad symbol. I’d kill not to be a sheep, but right now I’m still uncertain what exactly I’d rather be.
When I was little, I really loved birds. Don’t get me wrong: seagulls piss me off as much as they do the next person who’s shielding their fries on those sunny afternoons on the boardwalk, squawks rushing in from overhead; when driving quietly, alone on those cold fall afternoons, seeing a single vulture swirling overhead sends a shiver up my spine. But when a raven jumps lightly up into the air and flies away, nothing makes me more envious. As I was stuck on that boardwalk in my little beach hometown during those sunny afternoons, or there in my car as I quietly drove to school each morning, I wasted endless minutes looking out of windows at those birds. I looked at the geese flying down south in Vs and at the brightly colored cardinal following its mate, hopping from tree to tree. I wanted nothing more than to mimic their fluid, light motions, to leave. This was more than a fleeting thought or a passing desire to have a single different day: it was a daily, aching scream of every fiber in my body to melt into the air and get away to somewhere new.
We don’t talk about high school much here, unless it’s to drop a name we’re waiting for someone else to recognize, or maybe to explain where we met that friend who visited from off campus last weekend. There doesn’t seem to be much of a place for the past in this constant, aggressive, and overwhelming pursuit of new identities and new lives in the chaos that has been freshman year. But it would be a lie if I said it never came up in my head. I do not think about fluorescent classrooms, social studies teachers, or even the faded textbooks and students I got to know so well. I think about that endless screaming drive to leave, the one that drove me for years. I left home. I am here. I always thought about those birds flying off, but never stopped to think what they did when they came back down.
In a few months, the leaves will begin to turn again, and once more the geese will shake of residual drops of mossy pond water to take to the air and fly. I can’t tell you how many times these past two semesters I have caught myself looking once more out windows at birds, longing with every bit of my being to pick myself up and leave as well: to start over one more time. I have lost friends, failed exams, skipped going out to do homework, and skipped doing homework to go out; just when I feel like I catch my breath, something new comes. Leaving is so much easier than dealing. That’s why I craved those wild flights so endlessly and so passionately.
But I’ve realized that I’m tired of flying. Sometimes when I walk around campus, I catch the eye of someone I no longer talk to; we both duck our heads back down to our phones and pretend the exchange never happened. But sometimes, it’s the eye of someone I had a 4 a.m. conversation with two months ago, someone I committed a drunk meal run with last weekend, someone I had spent endless hours in Firestone with a few hours ago—and we smile at each other. For all the moments on this campus when I collapse in bed hours earlier than I planned, rubbing my eyes until the darkness of my eyelids spark into fireworks, I have so many more of dancing in glowing corners late at night, perching on the edge of that faded black couch in my friends’ room as they play video games and scream at the screen (I only pretend to understand what’s going on), and laughing until I can’t stand up straight anymore, arms looped around my friends as we leave the dark, crowded room to filter out into the cold air.
Flight may be beautiful, but along the way, you miss so much of what’s going on down on that sun-warmed earth underneath your toes as you rest your head on springs of freshly-curled grass and sink your head down onto the ground. I am no longer jealous of the birds fluttering overhead. I am lying in Prospect Garden, awash in a purely singular experience, and as I lazily observe the birds above, I realize that maybe they wish they were down here in my place instead. I am finally happy to be here on the ground.
BF29 attitude check! We love this shit! OA. What freshman who went on OA could forget OA? I remember the little things from BF29. I remember us lying underneath the stars and pouring out our fears and insecurities like liquid gold. I remember singing first the song of a high school alma mater, then Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb,” (maybe not in that order) as we literally climbed a mountain. In through the nose, out through the mouth. They warned me about the blisters but I didn’t listen. I remember Julia bandaging the fluid-filled ball of my foot as I cried like a hypochondriac and believed, truly believed, that I had asthma. I remember sitting on a log, rain-drenched and learning that it was easier to name what I hated about myself than what I loved. I remember thinking my trip leaders made for the best trio I’d ever witnessed in my 17 years of life, second only to my brother, sister, and me. And then it was all over. The miles of backpacking, the late-night conversations, the carefree atmosphere. We resubscribed to our watches and phones and were now returning to a campus, an unknown, our home? I remember boarding the bus, the stench of the one-shirt challenge clinging to my body, and my mind, in turn, clinging to memories of the four nights I had spent in the woods. We drove back to Princeton, our initiation complete. We were now as “freshman” as we would ever be.
We lived through orientation, midterms and finals, breaks—we’ve almost survived a year of college. And yet sometimes when I’m lying on my warm bed with my eyes closed, I can picture the stars, feel safely cocooned in a sleeping bag, and remember the stories of our hometowns and Tinder dates, our doubts and fears and worries about freshman year. I’ll never forget it all.
I could see in Andrea’s face that she thought I had changed in my first four months at Princeton, and, even though I jokingly denied it, she was right.
We were in the bowling alley way down Columbia Avenue. It was late enough that most people in Lancaster were tucking in against the cold wind, but early enough in my mind that I momentarily thought I had missed late meal.
It felt like this bowling alley, and the town in general, had not noticed our absence. Lancaster had proceeded, the same as always.
The only other patrons of the bowling alley were a group of middle-aged men down at the other end of the hall. Andrea and I saw them pull into the parking lot, driving the F-150s and Silverados that I never seem to see on Nassau Street.
Although I had changed, the surroundings were the same as they always have been.
This happened back in December, so I don’t exactly remember what I said, but Andrea suddenly gave me a look that said, “Dude, who are you?”
All she had to do was point at my sweatshirt’s bright orange lettering. She was right—I had changed.
I came to Princeton expecting to be shaped by it, at least a little. Who wouldn’t expect to change at all during college?
At the same time, I think there are certain traits that really make me the person I am. Is it possible for someone to change so much that he or she is unrecognizable? Would that necessarily be a bad thing?
I don’t know how to answer any of these questions.
All I know is that I am different person now than I was eight months ago because of Princeton, and I will continue to change for the next three years. Honestly, it’s kind of frightening.
I’m from Chicago. I see and hear myself reflected everywhere in the city. Floods of Black Americans moved to Chicago during the Great Migration, meaning that there are tons of missionary Baptist churches and Harold’s restaurants. There are beauty supplies and house music festivals and random dance competitions on corners on the west side of the city. Chicago is beautifully and inextricably Black.
Before coming to Princeton, I was seized by a weird, reversed sort of imposter syndrome, not least triggered by a question I got one day while working at the Poetry Foundation. “Isn’t that the Southern boys’ Ivy?” a well-meaning woman asked me. I later sat down with her, and she talked to me about her experience at another predominantly white institution that is going through the motions of welcoming Black students, especially Black women. She compared it to a machine: a machine not built to support you, but one designed to stagnate your motivation and pigeonhole your intellect.
Like all students, I worried about being good enough for Princeton. I was also acutely worried about Princeton not being good enough for me. I was coming from a high school where I’d radically changed my perception of my Black womanhood; I went natural, I stopped obsessing over white boys, and I learned to love my thighs. I was scared the discomfort of Princeton would shock me out of the self-love I was learning. Princeton is not Chicago; who was going to validate my presence and amplify my voice?
When I got to campus, I started looking for places where people would confirm a Black girl on campus. I tried to fit into The Nassau Weekly for a while; I was excited to experiment with writing, and I felt that the Nass would be a comfortable place for me to explore that side of myself. I lost that comfort when I realized I don’t fit into a room of fairly well-off, slightly liberal, kinda-edgy white people. I left that space.
I also spent time trying to align myself with the older Black students on campus. They are intelligent, forceful people, and while I respect that they have changed Princeton in the time that they’ve been here, I didn’t like the narrative that I felt forced to regurgitate, one of disdain for the institution. I recognize that Princeton has a lot of things to change and has not been welcoming to Black women. Despite all this, I still love being here, and this school is as much mine as it is anyone else’s. I resolved not to let anyone (white, Black, or otherwise) convince me of anything different.
I’ve discovered, in my short time here, that I don’t need anyone to validate my presence, and I certainly don’t need anyone to give me permission to share my voice. I think that word—permission—is something that Black women seek when the world realizes that we’re too smart, too strong, and too beautiful for the narrow constraints of being and existing as a woman of color.
An aside: Black girl at Princeton, I see you and I hear you. I hear you screaming the lyrics to a Beyoncé song in Cap; I see you in your hijab; I sometimes even hear you when you’re not speaking. No one on this campus can tell you that you belong here, not even me. That’s entirely up to you. Just your fabulous, magical, defiant existence is enough.
Also, another aside: you don’t have to march for everything, or campaign for everything; don’t let people tell you that it is your job to donate emotional labor to stop people from being racist and sexist. It’s fine if you do—who on this campus will march for us if we don’t march for ourselves? —but it’s also fine if you don’t. Remember that you do not owe anyone the time of day or a justification for your existence at the “Southern boys’ Ivy.” No longer.
And to the Black girls’ class of 2021, whoever you might be, I can tell you: yes, it’s hard being a Black girl at Princeton, but it is also hard being a Black girl anywhere—you might as well do it here. Princeton is pretty cool and the academics are nice and the campus is beautiful, but it also needs you. This cycle of exclusion is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Black girls don’t come to Princeton because there aren’t enough Black girls at Princeton. There are never enough Black girls at Princeton, and so people keep telling them they shouldn’t come. I wouldn’t lie to you, because I value you: some days are harder than others. But you’ll find you’ll stumble into places where there is space for you. I’ve found a Black girl squad and find myself meshing more and more with the Black community on campus. Catch me at a diSiac show, giving a tour, in the Fields Center, or just basking in the sunlight of the garden. For places where there is no space, carve one out and leave it for the Black girls coming after you; in places where people want to silence your voice, you have every right to demand they listen. The rest requires only a little Black girl magic, of which you have plenty.
Katherine Marie Powell