And when these walls in dust are laid,
With reverence and awe
Another throng shall breathe our song,
In praise of Old Nassau
As soon as I leave Princeton, these centuries-old walls will forget me.
Well that’s not strictly true. There are two marks I have left, literally, on the walls of this campus. The first: thumbtack holes on dorm-room walls — the scars of attempts to make tiny people-lockers more livable. The second: the wall formerly known as the Woodrow Wilson mural. The face that watched me every morning at breakfast for my two years in the college will, partially as a result of actions of a committee I sat on, grin at others no more.
But the mural owes its removal more to the protesters who began the process of resistance and to whichever building services staff physically end it, and all involved were swept along by societal currents larger than any one of us. Like the newly blank wall, the thumbtack holes I left on my dorm-room walls are anonymous, unremarkable. I spent four years searching for an original identity on this campus, and the physical mark I leave will be small, mundane, and unoriginal.
And Princeton’s mark on me? In some ways, I feel unchanged: I never really learned how to “do” Princeton. I never achieved optimal productivity in that awkward hour-or-two gap between classes. I never found the ideal balance between my busy schedule and the relationships I built (and failed to build). I never went to bed when I said I would, and I never woke up without needing a few minutes, or hours, to gather courage to face the day ahead.
Yet, here I am, thesis and classes complete, a mere fortnight from my final exam. My fellow seniors and I may not feel like we know what we’re doing, but in two weeks we will have done it nonetheless. And “it” is a four-year-long marathon effort that, when we arrived on campus, seemed as distant and incomprehensible as Charter was. So I must have changed somehow in the interim. As much as 17-year-old Bennett would have cringed to hear this, little of that change has come from classes or even vaunted extracurriculars.
I owe most of whom I’ve become to the people here — to four-year friends and to four-minute strangers. My writing career was born of appreciative emails from random readers of The Daily Princetonian. My politics — hopefully more nuanced, empathetic and realistic than those of four years ago — are owed to protesters, Facebook friends-of-friends and ‘Prince’ commenters (I’ll even miss Shadrach Smith). We build our worldviews, ourselves, from conversations in the dining hall, at drunk meal, in crowded, comfy dorm rooms, gesturing with our forks or drinks, feeling grandiose, lying on the golf course feeling small.
When we sit together as a class for commencement, it will be the end not just of an academic marathon, but of a feeling of connection that ran through it with us. Marina Keegan, writing for the Yale Daily News the week she graduated college and I graduated high school, called it “the opposite of loneliness” in a column by the same name. It’s the sense that we’re all feeling our way through this together. Read her whole column, because she captures that feeling exquisitely, and once we graduate we will never feel that sentiment the same way we’ve felt it here.
Five days after graduating, Keegan died in a car accident.
Since her death, millions around the world have read her words, either online or in the eponymous posthumous anthology of her works. Keegan lives on not only in the memories of her friends and peers, but in the way her words touched the lives of multitudes. Though I pray we are all fortunate enough that graduation heralds the beginning of our lives rather than the end, we, too, will live on in the many ways — intentional, circumstantial, unknowable — that we have touched each others’ lives here.
Early Sunday morning, I locked myself out of my room. As I trudged through the 4:00 a.m. darkness to the Department of Public Safety, the silent walls of Spelman and Whitman seemed to hold their breath with anticipation, for something more than Sunday’s rain and the festivities heralded by Lawnparties stages and Reunions fences. We are on the brink of, well, everything. Princeton too — with its campus master plans and new generations of students — will continue to change without us. It’s not just that the University’s neo-gothic walls stand unperturbed by my four tumultuous years here, but that new buildings will rise until this campus becomes entirely unrecognizable to me, erasing completely my memories and fingerprints. Already the Arts and Transit District has moved the late-night beacon of Wawa. Eventually even Frick, that new glass-and-steel cathedral to science, and my second home, will fall.
After all that Princeton has done for me and to me, my legacy will be whatever people take from random conversations and columns I penned while stressed, sleep-deprived, or (at least once) drunk. When the cheap newsprint decays, these articles will exist on only as electromagnetic bits on the internet, and as tenuous connections in our minds. If these connections, passed down through generations of Princetonians and rippling out from the Orange Bubble with each graduating class, are the only mark I have left on this campus, I suppose that’s enough.
Bennett McIntosh is a chemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.