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On a Friday night in late September I was with a new set of friends surrounded by gargoyles and turrets in the courtyard of a neo-gothic castle. Somehow I had entered a real-life fairytale. 


It was the fall semester of our freshman year and I felt totally out-of-place. I slowly moved one stiletto in front of the other, donning the pearls that my mom had passed down to me on my 18th birthday and a sparkling black dress that featured a 12-foot-long train, which I had found thrifting off Palmer Square for $15 and paid for with earnings from my three part-time jobs. I was so nervous. 


Terrified that I would trip and tumble in front of hundreds of my new classmates, I thought of how growing up in Sunday school I was taught about Moses parting the Red Sea to save the Israelites. This wasn’t a miracle, and I wasn’t saving nobody. The grandeur though of gliding down the slate steps of Blair Arch as my a capella group split in half to let me pass to the front left me breathless, which wasn’t ideal since it was my turn to take the lead.


I didn’t know what a capella was until arriving on campus. I’ll never forget the first time I heard an arch sing. There was no instrumentation or backup accompaniment to color the sound. A cacophony of voices melded into one, the music sounded just as rich as any pre-recorded track that you might hear on the radio or at a concert performed live. 


All across the university clusters of us would chant until the early morning like modern divinely inspired monks. We electrified the air. We turned the mundane walkways that zig-zagged all directions into magical music-laden cloisters through which students and faculty alike cavorted. What a vibe.


Following matriculation weeks earlier, I had struggled to find a way to fit in. I was searching for my tribe, but shy and convinced that the committee had made a mistake by letting me in, that I didn’t belong. I tried my best to push myself out of my comfort zone. Just like Sebastian, I secretly (or perhaps not as secretly as I had believed) battled generalized anxiety too.


I loved music and noticed how close-nit the a capella community was. The group I auditioned for seemed nicer and more inclusive than others. I wanted in. Thankfully, they wanted me too. In the short time since arriving on campus they had become a chosen family for me, a home away from my previous home.


I was flattered that I was selected to be the first of my year for a solo. I usually don’t like bragging about myself, but I have an above-average ability to sing. Singing is how I got into Princeton. I submitted an arts supplement with my application, a video clip of me performing the duet You’re The Top by Cole Porter from when I co-starred in my high school musical during my junior year with my then boyfriend.

Everyone had a hook who had been admitted. The world was full of applicants with perfect SAT scores and GPAs, which made admissions hyper-competitive. You needed a way to differentiate yourself.  

Over my four years on campus– in class, at the dining hall, on Prospect Avenue, in the most random of places– I eventually would meet an international Rubik's Cube champion, a Qatari prince, a piano prodigy, multiple MENSA geniuses, a reality tv-star, and the dude who disrupted the entire news industry with a new global platform, to mention a few of the highlights. 


Our class was composed of a mix of elites born into privilege, and those who had barely clawed their way in. I was in the latter category. My parents made even less than Sebastian’s. But I could sing.  


Classes were challenging and I was working harder than I ever had before in my life. My understanding of the world expanded exponentially. I was learning so much. I was growing in ways I hadn’t anticipated.


I finally arrived at the base of the stairwell. My feet were throbbing from my heels, which I wasn’t accustomed to wearing, and I became aware of how tired I was. I had pulled an all-nighter the evening before to make the deadline for submitting my paper on the explanatory power of constructivism in international relations.


People always assume that the ‘powers at be’ dictate their lives. I had argued that power only had meaning where people found meaning in it: world outcomes weren't determined by which leaders were in office, or what type of political system governed a nation, or how wealthy a country may be. It’s what people collectively thought that mattered. We have ‘constructed’ our own reality through communities of perception. It was the spread of ideas that kept the planet spinning, not money, or militaries, or morality. 


Think therefore you are. Imagine then you may be. Inception was real.  


What this meant more concretely was that people could collectively believe in cooperation, in coming together to make life better for themselves by doing things like forming companies to make things and then trading with other people to share the things that they had made in order to proliferate prosperity.


It also meant that sometimes individuals collectively got trapped in states of depression, in mindsets of seeing the world as a dangerous zero-sum game, that one nation’s success was another’s failure, that the only path to security was through domination and by inventing enemies of the state and demonizing entire categories of people in order to win.  


The logic of both worldviews was practiced throughout the history of humankind. The two competed and intersected at various points in time like the muddied shifting streams of a shoal victim to the rise and ebb of the ocean’s tide. Neither was necessarily more correct than the other. What had greater causal effect in deciding when wars started, stopped, and whether peace was sustained depended on believing in either to be true, not that either was inherently more true ipso facto. 


A few days after the arch sing the course preceptor would later return my essay with a handwritten B+ in red ink and the comment:


-This was a great start, but the story doesn’t quite end there. 


For a half-second, my mind flickered back to the countless evenings my Dad had come to give me a hard time for staying up too late. On weekday nights in high school I routinely would keep studying until 3 or 4 am. Almost every time, nearly without fail, he would rouse near dawn, notice the light seeping through the closed door to my room, and force me to go to bed. On one occasion he even took away my desk lamp and grounded me.  


Can you imagine grounding your child for studying too much?  


I was a punk. He meant well, but I fought back relentlessly. As a counter-defense, realizing that the light had betrayed me, I used to stuff blankets under the base and lintel of my door to hide. It never worked. I kept trying anyway.


Eventually I discovered that the key to success was to work in the dark. Sebastian had learned the same lesson too by the time I had met him.


In this era of my life I was finally in a place where I could be who I truly was. I didn’t have to hide anymore. I could study however long I wanted to, and others did the same. We were up all night until the sun to try to make things better. We had come too far to give up who we were. Our work was never over in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations. It was fun. I was lucky.


To be honest, back then I never really understood why I felt like I had to study so much and work so hard. Years later, around the same time that the war began, I became conscious that it was because there were so many parts of my life that I had no control over. I couldn’t control who loved me or agreed with me or wanted me dead, but I could control how much I learned.


I was generally a cheerful kid before college, but on this side of paradise I discovered a new high of happiness. My serotonin levels were at apogee.


The moment arrived. Sudden silence. We had just wrapped our third number and it was my time to shine. A spotlight of unknown origin blinded me. To my upper left and right a line of 12 orange koalas, split evenly on both sides, six-by-six, began synchronously swaying back-and-forth from stage left to right in an inverted V-shaped formation. The theme for our set on this particular evening was Rainforest Regalia. Atop my wavy coiffed black hair was an Amazonian crown of leaves that I had plucked from the ivy vines covering Nassau Hall. 


I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and said a quick prayer. Then I looked up.


That was the moment when I first saw him. Sebastian. He was in the gaggle of guys in the center of the audience. He wasn’t the hottest dude in the crowd, or the smartest, and definitely not the richest. But he had the sweetest disposition of anyone I had ever met, or ever would meet in my life, kind of like a silly little bear who you caught raiding the kitchen pantry with his paw in honey.


We locked eyes. I was immediately daft about him. I was drunk in love. 


You know how sometimes you just know? 


I knew. The rest is now history. All ends with beginnings. Just feel it.


-I’ve been drinkin…




-It’s been a while since we’ve heard from you. What have you learned from this week’s assignment?

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