Privilege Blog

Where Did You Go To School, Part 2

I was still 17 when I went to college. I was not a prodigy. My birthday is just in late September. I flew across the country by myself. Parents were less intent in 1974. I stayed with my elderly cousins. They drove me to campus in an old station wagon with wood side panels. We parked outside the dormitory I would live in. It was built of gray stone; with mullioned windows of old glass. The stairway was dark. The room was small. I remember the bunk beds and the placement of our furniture and the size of the windows. And a dogged sense of having to pretend that I wasn’t about to sit on the floor and admit I had no idea what I was doing.


All the freshmen in those days ate at Commons. Ceilings close to 3 stories high. More dark, more stone. We stood in line to enter. One of the very first nights I was waiting there in line by myself on the sidewalk. A boy stood in front of me. He turned. I was wearing jeans I had patched with pride, an Outward Bound logo squarely on my seat. In my “alternative” high school we had done survival training as part of the curriculum. I had a bandana on my head, probably navy blue but still, really? a bandana, pirate-style. The boy was wearing pants the color of faded strawberries. A button down shirt. A needlepoint belt with some small figures, could have been whales, could have been lacrosse sticks. I was not familiar with the secret life of belts in those days.

The boy asked me why I wore the bandana on my head. I was very nervous. I said in what I thought was a joke but actually was a manifestation of my discomfort, “Because my hair is dirty.” The boy was silent, unable to find a response. He turned away. Later it turned out that the boy was the son of someone everybody said was a member of La Cosa Nostra. Probably his belt was protective coloring, a disguise. But who can know at 17?

That’s just one piece. Here’s the other. I wrote my senior thesis, on Metaphor and Metonymy – List and Catalogues in Epic Poetry (the young are entitled to some hubris after all), in a study carrel, a small metal locker for people, combination lock and everything. I would go sit, read, write. Eat peanut M&Ms from a yellow 1-lb bag. Sit, read, write some more. And I would feel drunk. High. Stoned. Drunk on the workings of my own raw brain. I don’t mean to sound arrogant. That’s what it felt like at 21.

This is my own particular version of Princeton. It is embarrassing to discuss here, in public, because it is so much the emblem of privilege and yet so important to me in my personal identity. What I say is true. I do not know if it is important.

11 Responses

  1. Oh, to do work in an Ivy League study carrel. I’d stake mine out for weeks at a time, leaving just enough books, personal items, and gross half-rotting food (to keep away interlopers). Somehow, working at our new state-of-the-art library here at my public uni grad school just isn’t the same.

  2. Should I arrange for some Egyptology books to be sent your way? Some dust motes floating in a ray of the sunlight that comes in from the high up windows?

  3. The way you wrote this is remarkable, it simply transports us to those days and we're there with you, stealing the m&ms. Amazing post.

  4. Another excellent post. I just can’t even tell you how much I am enjoying your blog.

    BTW, I went to college at age 17 too…also because I was born in late September (of 1974).

  5. Yes. My birthday is Sept. 30, so I was also 17 when I entered college, and I remember that EXACT feeling you describe, that "drunk on the workings of my own brain," that exciting and fuzzy sensation that floods your brain when things start to come to come together and make sense…I'm returning to school again and hope I can recapture that feeling you describe so well in this post.

  6. Rochelle – We share not only that feeling but a birthday:). I hope your next educational venture goes well.

  7. perfect post. like a princeton version of prarie home companion… the poetry is in the details.

  8. I feel pretty much the same way about my Big Ten university. It’s perfectly understandable. Great post!

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