We don’t love movies like Wonka for being true to life. We love them because their worlds are gentler than our own. They show us what happy endings can look like.
The story’s finale is heartening but also convenient. In a flying elevator sailing through the clouds, Wonka tells Charlie that his entire family can come live in the wonder-filled chocolate factory he’s fallen in love with. In an instant, Wonka has changed Charlie’s fortunes. All is set for a wonderful life.
The subsequent fade to black prevents us from thinking through the complications of happily ever after. All we know is that in the 30 or so seconds between Wonka’s last wit and the credits, Charlie is purely, innocently happy.
There are a few moments in my life when I’ve known for sure that I was perfectly happy. Not just incidentally gleeful, but something more — something that goes beyond what my vocabulary can describe.
Four years ago, Princeton’s admissions staff gave me one of those moments.
Princeton was — and I’m honestly not sure if this is something to be embarrassed about — my childhood dream. I have loved this place ever since I landed on campus in the middle of a high school Model U.N. conference and wandered carelessly with the kind of obsessive infatuation that 14-year-old boys are capable of.
Three years later, when I learned of my acceptance, this dream came true. It was, as many of you will recall, a lovely feeling. But that feeling, special as it was, didn’t last.
In the eyes of my 14-year-old self, I had achieved so much just by being here. But not long after arriving at Princeton, being here was no longer enough. Though I’m experiencing just the right amount of self-loathing for making this reference, I’m reminded of Fitzgerald’s Amory Blaine: “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.”
Caught somewhere between the arrogance of Amory Blaine and the childish wonder of Charlie Bucket, I simply struggled to find something at Princeton to hold onto, or at least a path that might lead to something interesting.
It must have been that — I pray with everything inside of me that it wasn’t anything else — that led me to run for freshman class president. If memory serves correctly, I championed double-ply toilet paper with a slogan as grotesque as “from my mouth to your ass.” I also ran around campus with a megaphone, shouting campaign slogans and just generally letting everyone know the full extent of my toolishness. I moved on from this loss to other activities on campus, with — I hope — considerably more grace. But even so, my early Princeton ennui persisted.
My first years at Princeton stand out as having a certain lost character to them. They were, it pains me to say, largely unfulfilling. I barely enjoyed most of my classes (Pro tip: Choose ones you’re actually interested in.) and worried, considerably more than was justified, about my career and post-Princeton life.
And then at the end of sophomore year and the beginning of junior year, things miraculously started to change. I discovered my academic and extracurricular passions. I joined an eating club and began relationships with some of the loveliest, quirkiest people I’ve ever known. I love my friends: Through them (and a few wonderful professors), I’ve relearned to love Princeton.
Much of my time at Princeton has been forgotten or at least not packaged for a full comprehension. Memories blur when I seek them out unprompted, and for now that’s made it difficult to render a full picture. It may be a few years before I can look back and give my Princeton experience a more accurate explanation.
But for now, this is what I know: I wish it didn’t have to end.
Peter Zakin is a philosophy major from New York, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.