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July15, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 16

Web Exclusives

A cult in college clothing

Published in the July15, 2009, issue


Following is a transcript of the Class Day talk given by Jason Gilbert ’09 on June 1, 2009.

So tomorrow is our graduation day, or, as I like to call it, “the apocalypse.” And I realize that equating my graduation from school with the doomsday annihilation of mankind makes me a little bit of a pessimist; but, if you were born with as much back hair as me, you would be a pessimist, too.

So pardon my pessimism, but I loved this place. I didn’t come to Princeton to be brainwashed, but now that I have been, I could not be happier. After taking in this past long weekend, I am filled with a textbook nostalgia that the Annual Giving committee would love if I were not a comically unskilled English major. Yes, I’ll probably be poor for the next five or 50 years or so; but I still want to give back somehow. President Tilghman, how many food stamps will I have to donate to get a dorm named after me? I hope it’s not a lot of food stamps, because I like to eat.

Now, I know that Princeton isn’t actually a cult; in a real cult, the ceremonial drink is something sugary and delicious like Kool-Aid, and not the fetid, gut-turning sludge that is Milwaukee’s Best, a beer that is only slightly preferable to its sister beverage, Guantanamo’s Worst. If you’ve never tasted Milwaukee’s Best, drinking one is sort of like licking a sweaty foot; it is truly the worst beverage that I have ever had eight cups of for three nights a week every week for four years in a row.

I know that Princeton isn’t a real cult, but it is a little like one. For example, the chorus of our school alma mater has us all waving imaginary hats while pledging eternal worship to an ancient stone building: fairly cultish. And if I didn’t know any better, and I saw us at Baccalaureate yesterday, droning out a solemn entreaty to the heavens to raise Princeton’s endowment, over the blare of threatening organ music, and all of us wearing long black robes and boat shoes from Sperry’s rainbow collection, I would have assumed not that we were graduating, but that a psychotic yet charismatic leader had indoctrinated the members of a yacht club.

Cult or not, I will say again: I loved it here. The Czech author Milan Kundera once warned against being overly wistful, writing that “in the sunset of dissolution everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” I know this quote, and I can recite it from memory, because I was an English major here; and yet I cannot balance a checkbook, nor do I even know what that phrase means; nor will I ever have enough money to ever afford a checkbook, even a used one.

And yet despite my doomed future, I find that everything in the past is illuminated today, that the guillotine blades of my Princeton years seem softer than they did before. Every year, Naderesque freshmen run for office here, and they always promise to change the same two things: grade deflation and single-ply toilet paper. I, too, cursed these foul beasts. My sensitive skin and I especially hated the single-ply toilet paper, which is somewhere between quartz and diamond on the MOHS scale for hardness. In fact, there’s a rumor going around that the toilet paper here is so painful that Dick Cheney had to write a secret memo just to approve its use.

But as I signed my final Honor Code on the thin, brittle paper of my last exam booklet, which would soon have a “B+” scribbled across it, I realized something incredible: The final exam booklets and the single-ply toilet paper are made from the exact same material, and Princeton’s unique grade-deflation and toilet-paper policies were only part of the beginning stages of Princeton’s sustainability movement.

The Princeton experience, however, isn’t all about rash justification. Fellow classmates, former strangers, future wives and ex-wives: Can you remember, like I can, the instant you fell in love with this place? Mine was when I was a junior in high school, on my first tour of this campus, in the courtyard between Firestone and the Chapel. I know what I must have looked like back then: big gummy smile, eyes alight with amazement, horrible Jewfro wafting gently behind me in the February wind. It was love at first sight; and yet love at first sight is not love unless what follows that first sight is meaningful and true. And on that February day six years ago I had not yet even encountered the best part of Princeton: no, not the Carousel diner. I’m talking about the people.

You probably do not have to turn your head very far to see the face of a friend you met here at Princeton, from a place you didn’t even know existed, who has made better your life in a way that you cannot even begin to describe with human words. I know that from my vantage point, I am looking out at a crowd of those faces.

I came here from Marietta, Ga., a small Southern town whose main landmark is a 56-foot-tall mechanical chicken, with a beak that moves up and down, and a black eye that spins around slowly in its head, all of which advertises a KFC restaurant. This is not, as you might surmise, the traditional breeding ground for Ivy Leaguers.

I didn’t have a friend here at Princeton when I arrived, but since our first day huddled wide-eyed together in Dillon Gym I’ve met so many wonderful people, from even smaller towns, with even taller mechanical chickens; and to all of you I’ve met, from my closest friends to the strangers in the bathroom to every warm-souled Princetonian who did so much as smile at me from across a dance floor, to all of you who have enriched my life here to the point that on this day I have reached a climax of apoplectic furious blind and uncritical love for this grand institution whose beer tastes like beach water and whose toilet paper feels like a day-old beard on my tuchus; to all of you, I say this:

That if Princeton is a cult in a college’s clothing, then so be it: There is no one I would rather serve in a cult with than all you out there, my brothers and sisters. So let’s raise a cup of that Princeton Kool-Aid. Here’s to you, Old Nassau: May your endowment forever multiply, and may you continue to give hairy-backed nobodies like me the chance to bloom, to thrive, and to fall in love. Thank you.

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CURRENT ISSUE: July15, 2009