The best thing about Princeton is that even after you get accepted there is an endless supply of exclusive opportunities you can still apply to. From a capella groups and sports teams to frats and eating clubs to certificate programs and one notorious academic department, those of us fixin’ to get judged and measured up can easily locate the appropriate council of elders to dance for. Some lesser specimens, like Rafael Abrahams ’13, tend to shy away from potential failure, and enroll in non-selective majors like History, join loser-tolerant eating clubs like Terrace, and write for hippie dippy, loosely defined, all-accepting campus rags like the Nassau Weekly. The more determined, confident, and attractive among us, like Charles Metzger ’12, crave the taste of victory and bite hard, drooling trails of saliva all the way to the top of the Woodrow Wilson School, Tower Club, and the Daily Princetonian Opinions staff.
But even us Rafael Abrahamses sometimes find occasion to apply. For this Rafael Abrahams, that occasion arose in last year’s announcement of the revival of JRN 240. “Creative Nonfiction,” I was told, is a must-take for writers. The sixteen-student, sophomores-only journalism course is taught by the highly prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker contributor and author John McPhee. The course offers an unparalleled experience, the opportunity of prolonged intimate exchange with an expert of the writing craft. But even more compelling than McPhee’s credentials is his mystique. JRN 240 pops up sporadically, on average about every other year, but it’s never something to bank on, and you never know when good old John might grace Course Offerings with his presence. If the stars align during your sophomore year, consider yourself blessed.
When the time is right, it appears like a fog in the night. The prior day passes like any other. You do your work, chat with some friends, and go to sleep. But by the time you wake up, your inbox, cell phone, and doorway are packed tight with the panicked emails, texts, and wax-sealed missives of your colleagues, all bearing the same message: “You applying?” Yesterday, the skies were clear, your future lying bright and clear before you. Today, a thick cloud obstructs your vision in every direction, concealing the course of your next semester, your college career, and your life. Will I study with John McPhee? Will I pursue a successful journalistic career? In short: Will I get in?
The answer for me was a resounding “No.” Yes, even this esteemed Nass writer was denied a spot to Princeton journalism’s innermost sanctum. But for the Charles Metzgers reading this, shaking in your Dolce & Gabbana moccasins at the thought of rejection, fear not: You probably didn’t submit an application like mine.
Without further ado, my letter to Professor John McPhee.
“Dear Professor John McPhee:
I was born under a full moon. As is the custom in my village, my parents brought me before the local cleric to purge me of my demonic wolf possessor. As the cleric began to perform my exorcism and placed his forefinger on my tender forehead, a bolt of electricity ran up his arm and deep into his brain. To my parents’ horror, the cleric twitched violently, his face a dark scarlet, his ears and hair smoldering. And then he spoke—well not him exactly; a voice came from his lips but it was not his voice, his lips and tongue and teeth shaping the words of another.
“MY HUMBLE SERVANTS, MIRIAM AND DAVID.”
The voice addressed my parents by name. It spoke in a shrill whisper, full of purpose and authority; it spoke with the certainty of an ageless, omniscient being; it spoke with the intent of an ancient god.
“YOUR SON IS DESTINED FOR GREATNESS.”
My parents were struck with an ecstasy unlike anything they nor any other human had ever before experienced. The sheer thrill and energy that flowed through their veins was beyond worldly pleasure; their thinner capillaries burst under the enormous pressure; their skin stained sanguine.
“YOUNG RAFAEL: YOU MUST FIND AND COLLECT THE EIGHT HOLY ARTIFACTS THAT I HAVE SCATTERED THROUGHOUT THE LAND. EACH IS UNDER THE GUARD OF A FEARSOME AND TERRIBLE BEAST, AND YOU MUST EMPLOY YOUR WITS, YOUR SKILLS, YOUR WILLPOWER, AND EVERY FIBRE OF YOUR PHYSICAL BEING TO VANQUISH THEM. WHEN YOUR QUEST IS COMPLETE, I WILL SPEAK TO YOU AGAIN.”
The message is seared indelibly into my mind. When I close my eyes, it burns in crimson letters across the backs of my eyelids. The artifacts dance before me; they orbit my head and keep me from sleep. Some I can visualize clearly: a silver shark-fin amulet that glistens beneath the sea; a bejeweled iron dagger stained with the blood of a virgin doe; an ancient key carved from the wood of a ten-thousand-year-old olive tree. Others are shrouded forms, unusual and powerful objects concealed in an impenetrable darkness. But only one assumes a recognizable shape: I have witnessed a vision of a gold medallion, in which I can just distinguish the carved profile of Benjamin Franklin.
I approach you today with a modest request: Admit me to your course so I may complete my quest. JRN 240: Creative Nonfiction is legendary on campus, but with my inclusion in its long and fabled history, it—and you—will become legendary throughout the universe. David Remnick, Richard Stengel, Robert Wright, Peter Hessler: These are the names of your pupils, the heroes of journalism, and it only appropriate that Rafael Abrahams, a hero for all space and time, be added to this most prestigious list. The Pulitzer Prize beckons, and I must heed its call. Should I not be accepted, I will inevitably acquire the artifact by use of my mighty sword. I only hope that you, Professor John McPhee, are not the beast of whom my prophecy foretold.
Last January, I learned a valuable lesson: You just can’t trust your village cleric.