In the final week of August last year, after receiving my housing assignment for my first year of college, I indulged myself in a short trip down Route 1 South with a high school friend in tow to check out Whitman College, where I would be living a few weeks later. I hadn’t returned my prox after Preview weekend, so I brought it along and attempted to open the door that would soon be my front door, but the blinking red light stubbornly stayed red. We walked around the lower courtyard anyway until we found an unlocked door, the one that leads to the Class of 1963 Library.
Of course there aren’t any books in the Whitlib — a term I learned months later — but the Macs were turned on, and their screens were awake and gleaming. There was nothing really for us to do except log onto Facebook and tell the world we were inside the Class of 1963 Library. So I tentatively touched the mouse of the nearest computer and was prompted for my username and password. I had created a netID password only days earlier; it was not part of my muscle memory like it is now, but I tentatively tapped it out and was greeted in the affirmative: “Welcome Lekha Kanchinadam.”
I have known Princeton for far longer than it has known me. I went to high school on the other end of the Dinky, in Princeton Junction — a town that, along with its immediate neighbors, West Windsor and Plainsboro, exists the way it does at least in part because of its proximity to Princeton. Plainsboro didn’t have a downtown district until recently, and West Windsor still doesn’t — what we do have is easy access to Princeton. And so, my peers and I knew Princeton. We knew that it was a good day if you could find parking on Prospect Avenue, that the Art Museum was ideal for both fields trips and dates, that the Woody Woo fountain turned on when the trees on the plaza bloomed for the first time in the spring and that you could spend hours there without getting bored.
We wouldn’t venture onto campus often, but when we did we didn’t think much of it. The pathways and buildings were familiar enough, unprovocative and outstandingly, but not really so shockingly, beautiful. In retrospect I realize how campus, to us, was also almost entirely anonymous. Few building on campus are labeled as clearly as Stanhope Hall, so we had no idea what the names of buildings were. It was actually somewhat jarring when, during my sophomore or junior year in high school, I finally connected my knowledge of the existence of eating clubs and the Wilson School to their physical locations on Prospect Avenue and Washington Road, respectively. The “we” that I was a part of in high school knew Princeton well, but not like the “we” that I’m a part of now does. And vice versa.
At the end of the summer, my high school friends left the 609 to go to college. I stayed, along with the handful of kids who were also going to Princeton. On move-in day, I saw campus flooded with people for the first time — people who knew the names of the buildings and called Prospect Avenue “the Street” and didn’t even know where the best parking spots in town were, or that John Nash actually lives in West Windsor. They came with a fury, bringing with them an institutional knowledge they had carried away with them for the summer, a knowledge that they would take with them after they graduated.
This year has been the strangest process of learning and unlearning about a place I thought I already knew. I learned for the first time the things that every freshman learns: place names and shortest routes and the ideal study spots. I also unlearned and replaced a certain chunk of my lexicon with slang: “Woody Woo,” “the Wa,” “the Street.” Princeton University finally came to life, like I imagine it did for any other freshman who had only toured campus in the summer, or Google Image-searched obsessively in lieu of a visit. What is eerie is that in a few weeks, all of my college friends will leave for the summer, but I will stay. The campus will empty out, and the buildings and walkways and study spots will resume their summertime anonymity. Princeton will be left to suffer the Jersey humidity and the unguided confusion of tourists, gathering around the maps next to the blowjob statue — that’s one thing I didn’t have to unlearn — not realizing that it is in fact Firestone Library shimmering in the heat ahead of them.
I don’t know what the implications of this are. I think they probably have something to do with my conception of “home” and how it is an entirely different place in the school year and in the summer, how it is frightening that a working, current knowledge of Princeton University is almost entirely contingent on a population that only stays for nine months out of the year and leaves after four years. This year has been a year of double vision: When I’m speedwalking past the fountain to get to Bridges lab I remember the countless nights my high school friends and I would soak our toes in the water till they pruned. This summer, while my toes are pruning, no doubt I will see my path to Bridges clearly. It’s a strange dissonance to go to school in the town next my own, in a place where I have a million memories from high school and middle school. Maybe it’s that I’ll end up with a rich knowledge of this place, inside and out across the span of 22 years and through the perspective of high schooler and college student. Or maybe in 2015 the double vision will just be an exhausting exercise in nostalgia and culminate in my unbearable — and already mounting — impatience to leave. I suppose all I have to do is stay put and find out.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/05/03/30856/