As my class prepared for our 50th reunion, I found myself reflecting on my time at Princeton half a century ago. My most vivid memory dates back to first semester freshman year. In mid-October 1962, two matters weighed heavily on me. One was the Cuban missile crisis. President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev were in a staring contest, and failure to blink would mean thermonuclear war and the end of the world.
The other matter was the looming threat of midterm exams — my first since arriving at Princeton. All indications were that I would not fare well. And not faring well on exams was something new and terrifying to me.
I was torn. I didn’t want the world to end, but I didn’t want to face those exams, either. So I saw the situation as something of a wash: Either way had some good and some bad. To tell the truth, I probably saw the end of the world as the lesser problem because it was completely unimaginable to me. On the other hand, I could imagine doing poorly on my midterms and facing my mother.
Spoiler alert: There was no nuclear war, and the world did not end. For years we believed that Khrushchev had blinked; later we learned that it was a mutual blink, with Kennedy secretly agreeing to remove our missiles in Turkey in return for removal of those in Cuba. On the home front, Princeton did, in fact, hold midterm exams, and I did, in fact, do poorly — not disastrously, but poorly.