As a storyteller, I got a lot of things wrong. If I was the author, being interviewed about the story (my life, of course, the only story I know how to tell), I couldn’t answer many substantive questions. What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to major in? Where do you want to live when you’re older? No, for most of my life, the only thing I had figured out was that I was a Princeton girl, class of 2018.
See, I had this vision in my storyteller mind. Beginning, middle, and end. The girl has a rough childhood, moves around a lot, doesn’t know where to call home or for how long. Girl moves one final time, move coincides with puberty, emotional shit storm of a life transition. Realizes a lot of things about herself. Grows. Learns. Eats books. Conquers pens. Girl is exemplary student in high school, finishes perfect academic career, prances off to lifelong dream of an Ivy League education, rises above challenging circumstances. Happily ever after. At eighteen years old. The end.
I was the writer. I was in control. I had gotten through the rising action – lived it, even. The groundwork was all there. All I had to do was ascend the climax and pen the ending. It was my story. I had the control.
Except I didn’t.
About a week ago I sat on the floor of a hallway on the sixth floor of a dorm in New York City next to a girl who has known me longer than most. One of the only people who recognized my unimportant existence as a new student in a freshman class of kids who grew up together. We were fourteen then. Now we are eighteen – almost done with our first semester of college.
It was past two in the morning on a Wednesday. She had a paper due the next day. I had a bus back to Washington, DC in twelve hours. I should have returned to where I was staying hours ago. Taken a shower. Gone to bed. But there we both were, still up, still out. My butt was painfully numb from how long we had been sitting. She looked over at my face peering into a laptop screen, at the backpack beside me with six unread books for my upcoming exam.
“You should study,” she insisted. Coming from anyone else I would have called her uptight, but that wasn’t it. She simply cared.
“C’s get degrees,” I shot back, not lifting my eyes from the task at hand.
“You’ve changed so much.” I looked up. I couldn’t tell if she found this sad or amusing. Maybe just another fact of life.
“What? No, I haven’t.”
“Yes, you have,” she continued. “Do you remember what you were like when we first met?”
I thought about the shy fourteen-year-old brainiac at a new school, desperate to win everyone’s approval of normalcy and escape the associations that had plagued her her whole life. The things assumed about her just because she was smart and ambitious.
“Nerd,” I said. “Goody-two-shoes. Secret teacher’s pet. Naïve fool. Idiot buying into the system – ”
“Hey!” The fold of skin between her eyebrows joined a heavy frown. “Stop that.”
“Stop what?” She frowned harder. “Okay,” I relented. “But it’s true. I was wrong. I was so wrong about everything.”
The gravity of that statement hung in the air for a few seconds.
We were touring colleges for my sister, but I was the one who had the epiphany at merely eleven years old. On a beautiful July day in New Jersey, deciduous trees full in their greenery, gardens lush with color, I stood in the middle of Princeton’s campus, and I could see my life ahead with more clarity than I had ever seen anything before. I saw myself lounging on the lawn, sun streaming lazily and laughter in the air. I saw myself under one of the many casual arched tunnels between buildings, serenading my peers for fun with a brass quintet. I saw myself wandering the gray paths to class on a wintery white day. I left that day convinced that I would be back. It was, after all, where I belonged. It felt like home.
Everything I ever did was to get into Princeton. Sure, I loved all the extracurriculars I did, but it certainly didn’t hurt that I was involved and leading so many, especially when put on a college resume. But besides indulging in every after school activity that could possibly occupy my afternoons, I was hopelessly driven to excellence – no, superiority – by the idea that it was all for a singular purpose. For Princeton. I hadn’t known that I wanted to be a doctor since infancy or danced with the skill that could only lead to professionalism, or really known anything about what I wanted out of my future. So when I found Princeton, it became my passion, my focus, my one thing that I carried with pride. I funneled all of my energy and dreams and hopes into my vision, my idea, my master plan.
It’s cliché to say that I never once doubted that I would get in, but I really didn’t. I absolutely believed in myself and my abilities and my intelligence and my unparalleled connection to the school to get me in. So in that condition there was nothing that could have prepared me for the rejection that stabbed me to the core of my being. For seven years, I had fought like hell to earn my place at the top, to be perfect just like Princeton wanted me to be for them. For seven years, I had weaved my future attendance at Princeton into my identity so flawlessly and so intensely that when that reality was ripped from me, I didn’t feel like a person anymore. I certainly didn’t even know where to begin to figure out who I was going to be from then on.
I wish I hadn’t been so caught up in a preconceived notion of where I was supposed to go and who I was supposed to be. I wish someone had sat me down and asked me if I was doing all of it for the right reasons. The absolutely terrifying thing is that I would have said yes. I would have wholeheartedly said yes, that Princeton was where I was meant to be, where I wanted to be. And maybe that was true at some point, but things changed, life happened, and a mess of reality got in the way. And I’m glad it did: I don’t know who I would be at this point without it, I don’t know if I would have realized these things about myself, or if they would even exist as part of me.
My whole life I have felt important. Special. I grew up under the impression that I was meant to do great things.
I have always felt too big for this town (for any of the towns I have grown up in). I thought that I had found a city that was big enough for me – I’m certainly big enough for it – but what I didn’t realize what just because it was big enough didn’t make it right enough.
I am big in my own way and I miscalculated which way that was.
In a society that judges net worth and future success based on academic intelligence…is it crazy of me to decide that I want to be looked at (not judged) based on a different criteria? Especially after I’ve demonstrated that I’m fully capable of riding the system to safety?
What I hate myself for is that I can’t stop. I can’t let go of this notion of myself at an Ivy League school and receiving an Ivy League education and making Ivy League friends and graduating with an Ivy League diploma and living an Ivy League lifestyle. I just can’t stop. I created a new commonapp profile to start my transfer application to NYU – the school I know I want to go to, the one I know is right for me – and still I couldn’t help but wonder if I could get in on the second time around, and I added Brown to my list of schools. No! I can catch myself and delete the evidence, but I can’t stop myself from feeling this way. I can’t erase this idea from my head. I fear I will never be able to stop conceiving of myself in this way. But now I know what I want, and I know where I want to be, and I know that an acceptance letter from NYU won’t magically fix everything that’s wrong with my life and make all of these feelings go away, but I’d like to think it’s a damn good step in the right direction.