On Thanksgiving

At Thanksgiving, privileged people like me are meant to talk about how thankful we are that we are so fortunate. And I am thankful for that. Even as I had one of the most fun Thanksgivings of my life, I awoke this morning to read the news of the terrible terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed so many people. Believe me, I’m fully aware of how fortunate I am.

But what I’d like to talk about most of all is how this Thanksgiving represents how well I’ve adjusted to my university community. I sit here, the most privileged of the privileged, able to attend what is arguably the best university in the country, lacking for nothing. And yet the first several weeks of my experience at this university were frankly harrowing. I went through a week of being terribly sick that effectively put me in hospital (well, it was McCosh, but still) and a minor nervous breakdown that got me seeing a psychiatrist regularly. My parents paid for an unscheduled trip home. I couldn’t manage the enormous volume of work. I had no friends, no connection to university life, and I was miserable for it. What’s more, I believed that I was only here by virtue of my mother’s degrees a generation ago, that I didn’t deserve my place as much as my classmates did, and that I was an idiot by comparison.

And now look at me this past week. I’ve assisted in organizing a piece of political theater that’s attracted nationwide attention and reawakened the radical in me, as well as the historian of radicalism–which in turn has gotten me interested in history again as a discipline. Through this, I’ve met all sorts of clever, interesting, friendly undergraduates who are so inclusive that I don’t feel insignificantly stupid. The president of the university gave a guest lecture at my seminar on education policy last Tuesday, and through her words I finally realized what I’m doing at Princeton and why I deserve to be here. I no longer am ashamed of my mother and how her past brought me here–and I had a wonderful email exchange with said president on account of it, which led me to only greater faith in the administration of this place. I’m now at the point where, even though my room and the school itself have emptied for Thanksgiving, I can relish having a little time to myself, instead of just being desolately lonely.

The weather was lovely this morning when I woke up late and ventured forth at about 12:30 to find a place to eat on Nassau Street. I walked all the way down the road–so far that I could see a gas station (with gas below two dollars!) in the distance–and spent about an hour ascertaining that the only place open was Starbucks. But it was such a lovely day, and such a pleasant walk, that I didn’t mind. The Starbucks clerk was resolutely friendly, and despite having to work a double shift on Thanksgiving, he said he was having fun. I was cheered by his cheeriness, I drank my hot chocolate, I wrote about a third of an essay, and I beat a very difficult song on Guitar Hero, one I’ve been working at for a good few weeks.

Later in the afternoon, I went to friends for Thanksgiving “dinner” (I put “dinner” in quotes because like all such holiday meals, it didn’t occur anywhere near dinnertime; not because it wasn’t fantastic, because it was). And this, I think, is the bit I’m most thankful of all for. My friends are graduate students, you see, and with all due respect to undergrads, I’m constantly impressed by how intelligent and amusing they are, and thus by how fantastic it is that they do things like invite me to their Thanksgiving. I spent several hours at their house (well, apartment), ate a wonderful meal, played an incredibly intense game of Risk that I didn’t lose entirely, met some of their friends, and had a fantastic time. I couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed, and that I really spent that many hours consistently enjoying myself. I couldn’t believe that some of the people there were a good 10 years older than me, and yet it didn’t so much matter. And, finally, in the past few weeks these folks have been the spark that’s made me decide not only that going to grad school is inevitable for me, it’s what I want to do.

For me, Princeton has become a place where, as President Tilghman confirmed, I belong (no matter how much disgust I may have for certain elements of the student culture), and where I feel like I can do anything. I feel like an independent person who’s capable of working hard and putting out decent product; or walking into Terrace alone and having a good time; or sitting down in an hour and writing a column that gets me praise from the undergraduate intelligentsia of Princeton or the non-profit progressives of Washington; or opening the university community’s eyes to political injustice; or even, most remarkably, having friends. It all makes me feel as if when my four years are up and it comes time for the next step, I’m not going to be the loser I always fear I will be. It makes me feel as if I’ll be able to do whatever it is that I worry about–that I’ll get my PhD and get tenure, or get that book published, or be terribly interesting and glamorous, or have a social life beyond an old, dark apartment and a dozen cats.

All this has happened weeks before the end of my first semester. There are seven more of those to go–think about how many other wonderful things could happen.

That is what I am thankful for.

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