“Where do you go? That’s nice; how do you like it?”
“Yeah, I agree, college is so different from high school!”
“No, I’m not sure what I’m majoring in yet, how about you?”
“Oh, that’s cool.”
Over the course of our slightly awkward exchange, it came up that I spent a fair chunk of my senior year oscillating between spending my next four years at Princeton and spending them at Penn, which at the time I valued very highly for not being in my home state of The Dirty Jerz.
“That must have been a really tough decision,” the girl laughed. “Especially considering our intense rivalry.”
To this, I was caught slightly off guard. It was a pretty tough decision, but what intense rivalry? Apart from the general rivalry every school in the nation has with every other school in the nation, and the slightly concentrated version of that phenomenon within the Ivy League, I had never come across any seriously festering anti-Penn sentiment on campus. Was it just because I’m a freshman and hadn’t experienced the full cycle of sports seasons? Would we be crossing our fingers for a men’s golf victory come springtime, and later chasing a Quaker around with pitchforks?
“A sports rivalry?” I asked, attempting to clarify my doubts.
“Well, sort of. I think there’s a basketball rivalry or something. But I mean in general … like, the ‘Puck Frinceton’ T-shirts we have everywhere? It’s like the Harvard-Yale rivalry, except between the two of us.”
This took me aback, partly because I had never seen the likes of a “Puck Fenn” shirt around campus — it never occurred to me that Penn kids thought otherwise — and partly because this entire thing reminded me of another conversation I had had several months before, right after I had accepted Princeton’s offer of admission.
“I guess we’re rivals now,” I had texted my friend, who was just finishing his freshman year at Yale.
“Please,” he said in response. “We have a saying here: Harvard sucks, but Princeton doesn’t matter.”
I had brushed him off at the time, but I now realize he wasn’t lying. As vehemently as Princetonians decry Yale and Harvard and play up our supposedly passionate adversarial spirit, Harvard and Yale simply don’t feel the same way. For so long, we’ve tried to piggyback on their rivalry, insisting that they hate us as much as we hate them.
I think we, as a school, need to recognize the fact that we’re still peripheral to the Harvard-Yale rivalry, and not take it personally. It says absolutely nothing about us as a school — we still reign supreme in academia and undergraduate focus and all those other things you hear about in information sessions. However, if we sat down and realized that our obsession with the unrequited rivalry is borderline bizarre, perhaps we would stop overcompensating.
We sold “Harvard Sucks” sweatshirts before the big game, and our marching band covers their orange plaid uniforms with buttons that say things like “Yuck Fale.” Harvard and Yale don’t don Princeton-bashing apparel. Despite our solid efforts to cultivate mutually satisfying competition, neither Harvard nor Yale returns the courtesy. They are far more preoccupied with each other than they are with us. This is pretty obvious — they have no clue what our bonfire signifies, nor do they care. Alumni come in legions to watch The Game, but not our game.
When we beat both of them this football season, we threw a bonfire and in a very creepy, cultish gesture of victory, placed a stuffed bulldog and a faceless crimson-shirted mannequin in the flames. Burning things in effigy is very reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when the biggest problems on people’s minds included witchcraft and catching the Bubonic plague. The fact that one of the best universities in the country did that in the year 2012 is severely unsettling. There’s a perfect example of overcompensation; the bonfire would have been quite lovely had it not involved mutilating stuffed animals.
Basically, we’re floating in a weird limbo. Harvard and Yale hate (and the term “hate” is loose — as Rebecca Kreutter pointed out in her column on Nov. 18) each other, but not us — though we sorely wish that they would. Columbia published a poll last spring stating that 67 percent of undergraduates thought Princeton was the epicenter of all evil. So they, in conjunction with Penn, seem to detest us, but we hardly notice. The fact remains that we don’t have one unifying rival that feels the same way about us. But is it even important that we do? Is just the illusion enough? The bonfire — as unsettling as it was — did create a sense of unity and community, so perhaps it doesn’t even matter in the end that Harvard and Yale don’t care about us. Coming together against a common force, even if the common force is ambivalent on the matter, might be enough.
Shruthi Deivasigamani is a freshman from Creskill, N.J. She can be reached at email@example.com.