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Seeing like a student

Joshua Yang / The Daily Princetonian

From the first floor of East Pyne, I head toward Chancellor Green and turn right just before reaching the doors of the rotunda. There are four benches in total, three on one side and one on the other. The three oriented toward Nassau Street face a rusted statue of John Witherspoon, and the last one stands alone. Even though these wooden benches seem old and worn, often suffering the harsh wind and rain without proper support from the slanted ground underneath them, they have character. One is more intimate than the others and hides me from the open space of Firestone Plaza. Another encourages vulnerability as it inches me toward a pair of trash cans. 

During the fall semester, I always made sure to leave a window of seven minutes before my first class of the day to stop here, no matter how winded I was from speed-walking up campus. Seven minutes of morning. Seven minutes of mourning. Seven minutes in heaven. 


Everyone needs a safe space. Even though I didn’t realize it until now, there was always a ready-made excuse for me to pass the time and waste away while sitting there. I don’t know what to call it — my site of enjoyment, I’ll say. Facing the lone bench, I feel as if I’m part of an audience somewhere. It’s accompanied by a cigarette disposal that stands long and tall, and I replay all the possible scenes of people who have come and gone here for a smoke break. From this burrow of my own mind, I stick my head out and take occasional mental photographs, trying to freeze passing bodies in motion. After I sit for too long, my lower back and neck hurt from sitting on a form that refuses to follow function. The almost silly infrastructure echoes the voices of those who designed it and those who built it. It’s easy to imagine the construction workers preparing my site, given that they’re everywhere now. The history of this space changes me, and with every cosmic trace I leave, I change it, too. 

Residual cigarette butts mark the specter of a smoker. There’s a cognitive dissonance — they must know it’s bad, but they’ll do it anyway. My own cognitive dissonance always tells me that I am doing something useless. The staircase from East Pyne that leads down and away to Firestone is a constant reminder that I’m always stuck in a purgatory: I’m in between one destination and another — not in class, but not studying in the library either — with the ambivalence of two sides tugging at me, leaving me unable to move in either direction. 

On one hand, I always wonder what could have happened if I were to skip over these moments, what I could’ve accomplished by now, and how many days it would all add up to. The ice breakers to awkward conversations between students always include having too much work, being so busy, having the GCal stacked, or not having accomplished enough on the weekends. These despairing remarks have been repeated too many times that the words have worn themselves out for me. It’s become a hobby to complain. 

On the other hand, I secretly enjoy it too much. I love to look the other way, I watch when someone tells me not to, and I sit at my designated site of enjoyment, doing a whole lot of nothing. That’s why my site of enjoyment, not quite here or there, makes the contradiction in just existing so recognizable. It’s jarring and comforting at the same time. Everything that seems unnatural and out of place is a testimony to the usual comfort of nature; every imperfection signals the great potential of what could be.

Seeing like a student, I can’t help but notice the details in every angle. Useless things, pointless places, mistakes and miscalculations make the details all the more apparent. As a student, I write assignments that count for a fraction of my grade, for classes that I might not even remember in 10 or 20 years. A friend once told me, “You might die tomorrow, so what does it matter if you don’t finish your homework?” — to which I responded, “Well, if I’m going to die tomorrow, I really have to finish this tonight!” Another friend I recently met came back to campus with a nostalgic bead bracelet that spelled “Nietzsche” — she’s a philosophy major. Which reminded me that “nothing matters,” so everything matters all the more — who’s to say what ethical route to take? Should I fully commit to being a student, or should I abandon it for something better? 

Frankly, I recognize myself as the type of person to over-romanticize things, which manifests in many of my daily practices, like doing nothing — because, in all honesty, doing nothing is doing everything at the same time. It’s full of movement. With every step the professor, student, or tourist makes, I also move a little bit. From the eyes of a student, I’m always moving from one thing to another, but, at the same time, even my transitional stages are fixed. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m wasting away completely when I procrastinate or when I take sudden detours during my schedule. 


I can’t fully convince myself that I’m the type of person to dissociate from the competitive culture for the sake of doing what’s right. It’s hard to parse out which choices are driven by my own dreams and which are driven by a desire to overachieve for its own sake. It’s never clear-cut. 

This semester, I won’t be able to frequent my site of enjoyment as often anymore, since my bones weren’t built to withstand the Northeast temperament. But hopefully, I’ll find a new spot. The ambivalence and uncertainty of everyday life have me wandering in places that I never would’ve found if I had been born free and limitless. It’s hard to imagine a limitless life; limits give me a reason to transgress them, so I think I would like to transgress them. I think I would like to wander around a bit more, procrastinate a little longer, and keep looking for reasons to do absolutely nothing. 

Kyung Eun Lee is a contributing writer for The Prospect at thePrince.She can be reached at or on Instagram @entertainmentkyung.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect[at]

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