As Princeton’s end-of-year-rituals bring to a close the first half of my time here, I’ve been thinking of milestones and the future and most of all about how much I’ll miss late meal.
The golden rule I absorbed freshman year was to never miss it. My thorniest dilemma that year was choosing between different solutions to the knapsack problem: quesadillas, sushi, a sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, pita chips, salad, or a burger if I was feeling ravenous. I always gravitated toward drinks and sweets because these things brought to mind the childhood after-school snacks to which late meal is so similar.
Ultimately, though, late meal is not. at its essence, about food except insofar as meals structure our social lives. It’s really a built-in break from studying to hang out with your friends, all of whom are also at late meal. It’s comforting to walk down the stairs to the food gallery and recognize friend after friend; even a vague acquaintance will probably smile, feeling the same rush of connectedness that you feel in this communal moment.
After sophomore year the joyous camaraderie that exists from 2pm to 3:30pm (but actually 3:45 because the card-swipers are nice) will cease to be, as will most of the other university-wide communal structures in which we are forced to mingle with a random assortment of other people, like writing seminars or residential colleges. Nobody puts much stock in the idea that these things will magically turn everyone into best friends, but we do make at least casual friends in these contexts—ironically, to “survive” the very awkwardness of being among randos. After this year, though, a much larger proportion of our interactions will take place in arenas that we have specifically chosen: our eating clubs, classes for our majors that we’re taking with friends, and so on. As time goes on we create more and more buffers against interactions with strangers.
Late meal happens to cease to be available to us at the same time that a lot of things are getting more serious in our collegiate lives. Freshman year can feel like a coming of age, but the transformation you undergo only gets you to square one of the coming of age process. We arrived on campus for our second year flush with experience. We’d acquired fluency in Princeton’s ins and outs, its shortcuts like video game cheat codes. We know the time to go to TI is around midnight, Ivy is really popping at 1:30, and Terrace actually closes around 4. Rising with the dawn is worth it to secure the only creative writing section that fits your schedule. Whitman opens for Sunday brunch at 10, an hour earlier than all other dining halls. Another particularly important lesson is that everyone says they’re swamped but sometimes you will actually be swamped, and if you are the latter, Frist is not the place to get work done.
All the freshman year sampling and branching out, and the subsequent settling into a place of comfortable familiarity turns out to only be a foundation from which to get into the thick of the Princeton experience. Sophomore year introduces more serious dilemmas than what to get for late meal. To paraphrase Trainspotting, choose a club. Choose your best jeans to wear to bicker. Choose the T-shirt that will serve as your conversation piece.
Choose a major. Choose classes you don’t hate that will allow you to graduate with a degree in that major. Send in a completed questionnaire to your department before May 10th with an 800-character description of your possible JP topic and try not to panic.
While definitively choosing a path for your social or academic life to take can bring you a greater sense of belonging and the possibility of focusing your energies on what you like the most, choosing one option means renouncing all the others. The scope of your possibilities will never be this broad again. The sphere of interactions most readily available to you will never be this broad again.
Next year, we sophomores will be juniors and as such will leave the coddling cocoon of the residential college system. While we’ll still be coddled, it will be by our clubs, if we chose to join one—not a random assignment but a choice, and an important step in self-construction; or by our chosen departments, if they have a lot of money and fund dinners and field trips; or by the overarching entity of the university itself.
But these entities expect more of us. We’ve stepped into the phase of adolescence where our shelteredness is somewhat balanced by responsibilities (independent work and the looming job search) and it’s no longer fun and games and free food available 24/7.
A worn-out Fitzgerald reference tells us that sophomore spring is the most fun time at Princeton. It’s certainly the most carefree, and as I sit down to my last few treats from late meal I’ll make sure to savor every bite of the foods I’ve chosen.