When I was admitted to Princeton, I didn’t want to go.
I was in grade twelve, sixteen years old and attending Esquimalt High School, and I lived in horror of snootiness and conservatism. I had only recently found the courage and inspiration to express myself exactly as creatively and freakishly as I wanted to, and it was making me happier than I had probably ever been. There was a scruffy-headed artist that I was innocently in love with. I played the double bass and danced with purposefully bizarre motions to any live music that could be found. Together with my best friend, we designed treasure hunts and performed nonsensical skits in the hallways and prank-called our friends. And then into this paradise dropped the famous Dean Hargadon “YES” letter: not yes from Yale, which I thought seemed vaguely arty, or yes from Harvard, which at least was HARVARD, but Princeton.
Princeton – the good ol’ boys club that I had visited during a school break, when the only student to be seen was the bland tour guide who told us the same things as the brochure and convinced me that I wanted to be at absolutely any school on earth other than Old Nassau. The prestige did not change my mind. Reading Fitzgerald did not change my mind. I wanted to go to McGill, live in Montreal, and be BOHEMIAN, for fuck’s sake. Beret and baguette and bottle of ink. What was the point of escaping the torturous doldrums of adolescent bullying and awkwardness, and Discovering Yourself as the kind of girl who wanted to wear four different skirts in four different colours, all at the same time, only to squander it on the toniest and most soul-crushing of all the Ivies?
Not that, as a sixteen-year-old native British Columbian, I had any idea what an Ivy League school even was. But I knew I didn’t want Princeton. I’m not sure if I would have actually refused admission; most likely my parents would have exercised their judgment and insisted. What happened instead was that the school flew me out to visit as a “pre-frosh” and cement my acceptance, a common custom among ritzy American schools that seemed unfathomably lavish to me. I would guess that 80% of my high school classmates had never heard of Princeton University. Most of them had never been to America at all. A round-trip flight from Victoria to Newark, NJ cost at least $600; we bought the ticket on Princeton’s dime and I flew by myself for the first time in my life, showing up bewildered but determined in New Jersey. This time the campus was alive and chaotic with students, and I was put up with a sophomore theatre major from Calgary who stuffed my bag in the corner of her messy common room and promptly dragged me off to see a play.
This was the play: THE WILD PARTY,* a musical based on a poem written by Joseph Moncure March in 1928. The poem was considered obscene enough to be widely banned. There was an orgy scene. I may have seen a penis; I can’t quite remember. How would it seem to me now? Certainly I’ve observed a lot more penises. At the time it was like nothing I’d ever seen, bawdy and arty and altogether strange, full of speeches I didn’t quite understand and lighting that cast body parts into abstract sculpture and songs that didn’t sound like anything I’d heard in a musical before. The acting was very good. The performers were confident and beautiful, and they seemed very old to me, though now I realize that they were very young. I fell in love with all of them. I had so little experience with the theater. It blew me away.
That night I lay restless and uncomfortable on the loveseat in the common room, curled up into a ball and watching through slitted eyes the shadows that the high lead-paned windows cast onto the cluttered floor. The hallways of the dormitory and the paths outside were full of trickling voices and footsteps as students went to and from Prospect Avenue, the road abutting Princeton’s campus lined with frat-like “eating clubs” in which most of the campus’s partying takes place. The Calgarian’s roommate had invited me to go out with her that night but I refused, awkwardly, terrified of these party houses that dedicated themselves to institutionalizing the elitist socio-economic hierarchies that were the very reason I didn’t want to go to Princeton in the first place. Also, I was painfully naïve, and knew it: I had never been kissed, had never been drunk, and in fact would not get drunk for the first time until my sophomore year at Princeton. I still thought of myself as a hapless outcast from the social life and mating rituals of my peers, and the idea of going to the eating clubs filled me with a thousand kinds of self-conscious dread.
When the roommate returned, jacket unbuttoned and purse slung carelessly from one limp hand, I shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I listened to her shucking off her ballerina flats and stumbling slightly on the debris blocking her bedroom door, and I curled further into myself, like a snail’s golden ratio coiling tightly around my decision: this is where I will spend the next four years of my life.
* Coincidentally, there was a woman who acted in The Wild Party who graduated that year, so we were never at school together and never met; but five years later, we wound up as teachers together in India and became friends, along with her husband. I am sitting at this moment in their living room, about to eat breakfast with their two young children before we go ice-skating and engage in other Christmas Eve activities.