I love term-time, as our neighbors across the Atlantic might call it. In part, I love it precisely because our neighbors across the Atlantic call it that; I have a tendency during term-time to use words like “term-time,” and also to say I run into people “in the staircase,” or—in the manner of a British friend whose phrasing everyone we know seems to have adopted, that I am going to eat dinner “in hall.” “Hall” is a more dignified-sounding way of saying “the dining hall,” but it also seems to better characterize my mealtime pose, the one term-time causes me to adopt. When I was living in DC this summer, I ate a hurried and distracted sandwich at my desk, and then later that day cooked yet another batch of pasta to the strains of NPR’s All Things Considered. When I was spending time with my family, our meals were characterized with only the sorts of in-jokes my family can manage—from the “spy names” we invented and with which we labeled our plastic water cups to some really arcane commentary on Paradise Lost.
But during term-time I spend hours in hall, with a languorousness it’s impossible to manage when my schedule is dependent on my family’s or my employer’s. I arrange my course schedule to ensure I can allow at least two hours a day for lunch, and I’ll sit at one of the long wooden tables my residential college (if I’m feeling particularly Anglophilic, I’ll leave out the oh-so-American “residential” clarification) thought appropriately atmospheric to include in its dining hall. I’ll drink cup after cup of coffee. I’ll read my assigned reading, or a New Yorker, or the school newspaper, or the internet. Sometimes I’ll see my friends and we’ll talk, as we always do, with in-jokes to rival my family’s, though perhaps not quite as absurdly silly as theirs. But it’s also frequent that the hours will slip by alone, and I’ll feel a distinct sense of solitary ownership of my college as I walk forth to the coffee machine, and back to my book, and forth to the coffee machine again. I do the same at dinner—just without the coffee.
In the evenings I come home (sometimes before dinner, sometimes after), and I jog the four flights of stairs—my staircase—to my room over the archway—my archway—where I put on the kettle and make a cup of tea. I read and I drink tea, and I’ll pull up my Baroque station on Pandora. Sometimes I’ll write. I suppose I am the very picture of pretentiousness, but the beauty of term-time is that the routine is utterly my own. I get to structure my day, and my week, so that there is time to spend looking down at the path below my archway, drinking tea, Edith Wharton (or whatever I was assigned in a given week) held open on my lap.
But I don’t get the three days of calm without the four days of frenzy, and so during my four-day week my cheap brown leather shoes pound the sidewalks, my corduroy blazer flaps behind me, and my bookbag slung over my shoulder bangs against the back of my thigh as I trace my habitual paths across campus. It’s classrooms and library and student center and coffeeshop, and it’s scribbling notes in lecture or typing emails while I wait for lecture to begin, and it’s running into friends on the paths of my day and catching up, or just answering questions about the latest queer-related thing I’m planning. And sometimes I’ll get some one-on-one time with a professor; sometimes I’ll have a particularly productive meeting. Sometimes, all too unexpectedly, the frenzy will give way to calm, and I’ll find myself with a half-hour to kill. I curl up in an armchair in the college common room. “I suppose I should use this time to read,” I think to myself, because staying caught up with the page counts is the curse of term-time. And then I nearly make myself late to class, because suddenly I’ve killed an hour.
When I go to an admissions committee meeting, or strategize about campus LGBT activism, or write a piece for a campus publication, I’m part of Princeton. And more often than not, I do shove myself into the fabric of this place. But I suspect I simultaneously live in a mental universe with no resemblance to anyone’s fabric, one wherein tea and hall and staircases blend seamlessly with Allen Ginsberg and The Muppet Show and (when I can bear it) Congressional politics. I was recently accused of not “enjoy[ing] drinking, music, and fun,” and when you’re leveled with such a bizarre accusation, your inclination is to dispute it. But my profound antisociality, my profound Anglophilia, my profound nerdiness, and my profound joy at sitting on my window seat, listening to Bach, and drinking tea probably speak for themselves. For all that I go to Princeton, and care about Princeton, and talk a lot about Princeton, I apparently have dual enrollment with The University in My Head.
The University in My Head (I guess its sweatshirts probably say “UMH”) reminds me of moments from this summer in DC. I spent nine hours a day absorbed in politics and news and finding things to say about them, and in learning how to be a journalist. But it was the times I didn’t have to think about those things that were the most beautiful times: when I plowed through book after book by Edmund White, when I wrote poetry, when I went to the Smithsonian and the National Gallery, when I sat for hours in the coffeeshop the way I do in hall here. If I were aiming for cliché, I guess I’d say that at UMH, it doesn’t have to be October to be term-time.
I guess I’d also tell myself that I also go to a real university, where the reading actually has to be done before next week’s lectures. But that’s okay, because I think I’m discovering how to make from my life my own beauty and joy.