I’ve spent my week in Princeton oscillating between having a smile plastered on my face and fighting an irrepressible melancholy. On balance, I must concede it’s pretty fabulous to be here: each day has consisted of bouncing from lunch dates with good friends to band rehearsals attended with good friends and late-night study parties composed of good friends. In fact, the non-stop joy of listening to punk rock and doing sit-ups with Ted, laughing at the same ridiculous jokes that weren’t funny four years ago with band people, and cooking with my temporary “roommates” makes it hard to stop and contemplate the fact that I am not, in fact, a Princeton student.
Of course, Princeton gives me all sorts of reminders that I don’t belong here. I can’t actually get into a dorm without sketchily asking an undergraduate to let me in. I’m not able to check out books from the library, or log on to a cluster computer. I had to ask the cashier at Frist if I could pay for my burrito using “big kid” money, and then had to face the sad fact that the Frist food seem like a lot worse deal when the cost doesn’t wind up on my parent’s bill (sorry about all those late night snacks, Mom and Dad). The things that get to me, though, aren’t institutional. Partially, it’s the quizzical looks I get from people who vaguely know me – well enough to know that I am supposed to be at grad school, somewhere.
What really nags at me is something I’ve been reflecting on all summer, but has become much more real now that I’m actually on campus. It took me so long to settle in here, and to get some recognition, that it’s tough to realize the extent how quickly I am totally irrelevant to everything that happens here. I think that secretly most people want to believe when they graduate, when they step down as a leader, or quit an organization, everything will fall apart because they are so indispensible. But this is, of course, rarely the case, and while that’s largely a relief for me, I really do occasionally wish for some confirmation that something I did here mattered.
(And now for something completely different.) One of my take-away realizations from Uganda is the absurd and seemingly insurmountable challenge of systematic change. The NGOs and charities that sought to transform Uganda into France or the U.S.A. were spinning their wheels and courting frustration; the aid workers who saw their role as making a bad situation a little bit less bad were actually doing something substantive, both for themselves and others. It was a tough realization, because I wanted to see revolution. And I wanted “revolution” in Princeton, too, and it obviously didn’t happen.
But tonight, I got a nice little reminder that I had an impact, however infinitesimal. I was sitting in Frist with a group of band freshman after field rehearsal, regaling them with tales of my band glory-days and otherwise aspiring to make myself sound as old as possible. Eventually, one of the freshmen interrupted me and asked if I had ever had a Mohawk. She then explained that she had seen me speak at a pre-frosh event, and that I had made her feel a little more “okay” about coming to Princeton and still being herself.
And that makes it all worth it.