Every time I go back to Princeton, the entire thing feels like a non-stop personal examination. While I should just enjoy my precious few days on campus, I find myself spending the balance of time agonizing over how it is, exactly, I am supposed to relate to my alma mater. I am I supposed to feel sad or elated to be back? Should I go for the humorous-if-sketchy persona, or try to show that I’ve grown up a bit? And what am I supposed to say about the real world*: that it’s a non-stop barrel of laughs, or that I cry myself to sleep at night longing for the undergraduate glory days?
The first time I go back this year, I feel nothing. It’s the day after I returned from Ecuador, and I run along the tow path from Jackie’s house in Lawrenceville onto Princeton’s campus. Aside from a handful of inexplicable changes—did they put a new archway into Brown Hall just to give alums something to whine about?—everything looks the exact same. And yet I am not overcome with the wave of nostalgia I was expecting. The undergrads aren’t yet back from their summer vacation, and the emptiness of campus reminds me that my best and worst memories of Princeton have nothing to do with gothic buildings.
Two Saturdays ago, I went back again—except this time, not to Princeton, but to the band. At first I am elated, because after about five minutes it doesn’t seem to even matter that I am graduated. More than anything, though, Saturday made me feel relieved. In part, I am relieved to see that the band has not fallen apart, and, in fact, is thriving. But I’m also relieved that, even if it were falling apart, I’m not sure it would be the end of the world. I am not worried about what the officers are doing, or whether the new members are having a good time, or how it will all look in the eyes of athletics. I am, for an afternoon, a freshman again: I can dance and sing like an idiot and not care what anyone else thinks.
I feel like a freshman again Saturday night, at the Triangle Show, but this time not in a good way. By my senior year, I found at least mildly amusing the skits and songs celebrating how fabulously isolated and rich and preppy Princeton is. With a bit more detachment, though, I am taken aback—and remember why, when I first arrived, I didn’t feel like I fit in. On Sunday, I go to lawnparties—an event I rarely made it to as a student—and can’t help but feel grateful for the fact that I no longer have to look at the J-Crew-clad army again and think, “These are my peers.” I actually wind up leaving lawnparties early and going to Marquand library to work. Peering over a dense book of sociological theory to watch people stagger back from the street on a Sunday—now that makes me feel like an undergraduate again.
Striking the right balance when going back is hard enough that I am realizing that, perhaps, it is easier not to go back at all. And, of course, Princeton is doing its part to nudge me out the door. Graduation doesn’t actually mark a clean break. For a few years, you can still make it back and steal a few moments where it feels as if you’ve never left. But then they change the ID card, so you can’t getinto the library anymore. They block off the places you used to sneak into, and they reorder things enough that it doesn’t quite feel like home anymore. Eventually, all your friends graduate, and the new students don’t particularly want to listen to your stories about six, seven, eight years ago anymore. Your antics stop being funny in a nostalgic sort of way: they’re just pathetic.
And it’s realizing that—that this really might be my last visit to Princeton outside of reunions—that makes me incredibly sad. It really is over, and, regardless of what the song says, you can’t actually go back. I’ve spent so much time trying to forget about Princeton and get over it that I almost forgot how much I love this place.
* By “real world”, I obviously mean, “the other fake world: Oxford.”