I opened my eyes. I saw hints of a cloudless sky through the canopy, and the sounds of tropical birds filtered into my ears. I was drawing a blank. I tried to stand up, but the world was spinning. Somewhere behind me an engine sputtered and died. Gradually I started remembering what happened. I remembered swerving to miss a strange jungle creature that had darted out into the dirt road, going off the track, thinking damn, I am about to hit this tree, then squeezing my eyes shut a split second before the collision. The actual crash itself never did come back to me, and I will never know for how long I was lying in the road. I managed to stand up and stagger five meters back up to my motorcycle. It was about as damaged as I was, I was concussed and bleeding, and it was scrapped and the gearshift was twisted, but we both made it to the next ranger station. Things like that don’t happen at Princeton; they can’t. After a semester of living here, in the most civilized place on the planet, I thank God for my year off more and more. That time was indispensable to me.
The problem, of course, with having a crazy gap year is that eventually it ends. The transition is not an easy one. The huge, wild world that was previously laid out before me suddenly constricted to our tiny, suffocating campus. It’s inconceivable to me that we must spend four whole years of our lives here. Princeton can feel like a prison.
It’s a very sheltered prison, and many of the inmates want to keep it that way. The word “sketchy” constantly comes up in conversation, and it can be applied to almost anything. It’s a very Princeton word: it equates the unknown and the threatening. Anything even vaguely working-class or slightly unusual is immediately sketchy. It’s somewhat disheartening to learn that the world in which I spent my year off, rather than being fun or wild or intriguing, is actually just discomforting.
It’s difficult living in a place where everything remotely interesting or unusual is automatically off-limits. Every so often I am arrested by a burning desire to just get the hell out of here and find a real place, populated by real people. After a year in the wide world it is so obvious that Princeton is a four-year fantasy camp. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. There’s a pretty strong argument to be made that the year off was a total dream, and that the rest of our lives are just going to be more of this.
Should the gap year be institutionalized? Currently there is a fourteen-person team of students, faculty, and staff members deciding how best to institute some sort of University-approved bridge-year plan.
My year off was a time to go off the radar. It gave me a chance, straight out of high school, to hurl myself against the world and see what happens. It was a time for driving through strange jungles on a motorcycle and going on drug-fueled bar crawls through Baltimore with Democratic campaign workers. It was a yearlong experiment with dissolution. Any creation of a Princeton-approved gap year plan would be the perfect way to ruin all that.
A student taking a year off is doing it because he wants adventure and excitement. Princeton is adept at sucking those two things out of anything it touches. For example, on the face of it, Outdoor Action should be fun. A bunch of young adults out in the middle of the woods with nothing but what they carry on their backs–sounds like an intense, dangerous, fun time. Instead, in true Princeton style, every miniscule risk is planned for and avoided.
What could possibly be fun about a gap year like that? A gap year in which the goal, rather than to explore and have adventures, is some sort of limp-wristed “service of all nations” drivel would be just as dull as spending every weekend wondering which of the ten eating clubs you will waste your night in.
The year off is an exciting way to spend a the time between high school and college, but it inevitably sets you up for a disappointment afterwards. There is just no way that four years of sedentary university life could possibly measure up to a year of living and traveling in the real world.