Princeton Re-View: Fiddler in the Rye

This is the story of my fail of a Princeton interview, and a small, but redemptive, synchronistic twist of fate that occurred thirty-three years later.  I tell it in the spirit of calming fears, in this case the fear of rejection; for when it comes to the lizard brain, rejection, loss, abandonment, annihilation, dread and death all cluster together.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), when we are in lizard mode, things do not go well for one-to-one love, nor do they pulse well for the social network.  And when it comes to parenting, whether it is about getting our child into the “right school,” or just getting them into the car when they are in one of those moods, calming ourselves by being mindful that we are already accepted to the school of life—the school we’re all in together—may help us calm our children and support them to shine, not just for the benefit of themselves, but for the collective good of all of us.

This particular story came back into my mind recently when I was dining with friends and got to chatting with a visiting step-mom, now a fellow psychologist, who turned out to have been in charge of admissions at Princeton for a good number of years—years including 1978 (a time when I had, more or less, fashioned myself after Sartre, Camus and Starsky—not Nick from The Great Gatsby).

The story of my not going to Princeton, or should I say of even considering the preposterous idea of yours truly ever going to Princeton, begins with my father, a man who later became his greatest fear:  Wily Loman—and he did this by obsessively dreading that he would one day become Wily Loman…

Dad would come into my room before he left for work in his bespoke suits and custom Hong Kong shirts, the rising sun glinting off a gold cufflink as he’d clench a tight Friday Night Lights fist in my direction and intone:  “Self-confidence!”  Then, clear on what I lacked, he would vanish into his day as I pulled covers over head.

Little did I realize that this particular Wily Loman, my dad, was the sort to venture into the jungle (more like the legendary uncle in Death of a Salesman) only he was also the sort to come back out a couple of decades later having lost a fortune.

But back in the fall of 1977 he was riding high:  country club, big office, the works… but alas I was more be-Holden to Caulfield than to Biff or Happy—and in my mind I was already sardonically running away from the sort of private school that I had never even seen the inside of when my father turned to me in the middle of dinner in my senior year.

“Where do you want to go to college?” my dad asked, abruptly (as if we were at Baskin Robbins and I was now to choose my flavor).  “I don’t know,” I answered with total honesty, having given it zero thought.

“You should go to Princeton.  It’s the top school in the country.”

I did know enough to know that my grades and SATs were nowhere in the ballpark of an Ivy League school.  But I had already demonstrated my naïve ignorance and now my father could not be swayed from his clear choice for me.

And so, despite vehement protestations and attempts to dissuade him from this ridiculous and humiliating set-up for rejection, I found myself on a cold winter’s morning parting ways from my father at the elegant gates of Princeton and making my way to the admissions office.

A woman rose to shake my hand across a desk and we sat, she looked down at my application and transcripts and then back up at me.  “What makes you think that you are Princeton material?” was her leadoff question.

I looked her in the eye and said, “I’m not Princeton material.  I don’t have the grades.  I don’t have the SAT scores.  I’m here because my father insisted that I apply and I really don’t want to waste your time.  So I’m going to wander around this pretty campus for an hour and pretend that we had an interview.”

I rose, shook her hand and left.  I wandered around the pretty campus for an hour, feeling rather free and authentic, and met my dad back at the steely gates.  “How did it go?” he asked with firm resolve.  “I think it went pretty well,” I said, at that time thinking that I was lying, but only now realizing how truthful I was being.

As I told this story at dinner to the woman who had then been head of admissions, she expressed that she was astonished that the interviewer just let me walk out of her office.  Now maybe she was just being polite, but she said that if she herself had been doing the interview, my behavior would have really interested her and she would have asked me all sorts of questions.

Her openness of spirit, and what seemed to be her honest sentiment, truly surprised me, stopped me by woods on a snowy evening in my mental tracks.  All at once I felt that the road not taken was the road I was not supposed to take, but maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t because I had been too dumb, or too gauche or too Starsky—maybe, just maybe, our ever-twisting and turning paths of seeming acceptance, rejection, triumph, defeat, open doors and roadblocks all come from the same well-spring and all spill into the same ocean.

Maybe the simple moment of human acceptance from the former gate-keeper at Princeton was worth more to me than an eating club, a social network, a semester abroad—more than the whole works—because at that moment I wanted to be nowhere besides where I was, dining with my family and my dear friends, extending my conscious circle of connection, and wanting to be no one other than who I was, who I am—which is not a character in a play or book (although I love to reference them all and they inform my psyche, as they do our collective psyche), but a specific and particular human being—just like you.

And so I sign off today, wishing you feelings of deep acceptance—for you, your kids and all our collective selves and children.

Namaste, BD

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19 Responses to “Princeton Re-View: Fiddler in the Rye”

  1. Mark Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    Knowing any number of people who did go to Princeton, as well as these guys who confess they got a crappy education at Stanford and Harvard (http://www.itp.edu/currents/editorials/fragerfadiman.php), I can tell you that the universe was clearly treating you as a favored son! And look how it’s all turning out!! 😉

    Best,

    Mark

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Mark, Although I know a good number of people who did get top-rate eduction at top-ranked schools (and are lovely folks to boot), I am much connected to my own gratitude, and more than pleased to be connected with you on our less structured, but no less sincere, journey of ever-continuing education, compassion and having the best time we can along the way. Namaste

  2. Katrina Kenison Says:

    Bruce, This whole story touches me so deeply, especially as I watch Jack now approach the college admissions game, trying so hard to be nonchalant but also wanting so desperately to make us proud, to fit in, to be seen and judged as the right “material” for somewhere. And try as I might to lay my own fears and aspirations for him to rest, they keep right on popping up. Your post reminds me to take a breath and have faith that it will all unfold as it’s meant to, whether I lie awake staring at the ceiling on his behalf or not. And what a gutsy kid you were! Love knowing that about you!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Katrina, Thanks for your always kind and gentle words. I too find myself walking that tightrope as my older son begins to think about colleges, refraining from unconsciously sending him to where I might now like to go (so many places I might now like to go and study, play and grow… so different to be relatively grown-up with a map of what I could dimly grasp as a kid) while trying to help him map and organize a world he has no reason to have much real insight into. And then there is the whole notion of paying for it… So, your comment reminds me too, to take a breath and trust that not only will it unfold as it’s meant, but that we are connected, kids and parents, in this unfolding and in this wishing well for each other. XO, BD

  3. Lindsey Says:

    What an amazing story … first of all, that interviewer was not only a jerk (what kind of a lead-off question – or any question – is that? so obnoxious!) but a big idiot for letting you leave. Wow. I am impressed (though not hugely surprised, knowing the adult you) at the wisdom and maturity you displayed as a teenager. And the knowledge that the bumps and twists in the road ARE the road is something I’m trying to embrace now … stories like this bring it home.
    Thank you, thank you, as always. xox

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Lindsey, Thanks for such kind and affirming words. Not only do I savor the twists and turns (at least looking back), but I treasure being on the road now with you in a world where we get to choose our connections (and at the same time realize that we are ultimately connected with everyone and everything—the trick seems to be knowing this while simultaneously owning our individuality; but I dare say that helping each other with this is not “cheating” on the test :)). Hugs & Namaste, BD

  4. Rob Says:

    The interviewer clearly wasn’t following the rules of improvisation — what a great scene it would have been if she had followed up your truthfulness with some truth of her own! Great post Bruce!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Thanks Rob—maybe that would have culminated with the interviewer going home with my dad, and then me taking over her job… sort of Monty Python meets Siddhartha? Here’s to living in the “yes and,” and not the “yes but” world. See you at the Bureau of Silly Walks, BD

  5. Pamela Says:

    Bruce,

    First of all, thanks for the Starsky and Hutch photos. Made my day!!

    I LOVE how brave you were. My hero in high school was Holden Caulfield and you were IT. Thank you also for reminding me that now is the perfect moment and where we are is where we are supposed to be. I was told once that if a school rejects you, it’s not the school for you and I thought that was great.

    Wonderful reality check!

    xoxo
    Pamela

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Pamela, Thanks for your gracious and kind words—and even more for being willing to take a stand with me in the bewildering rye, embracing our rejections as we strive to embrace all our kids, especially when they start racing to nowhere. With much affection right back at ‘cha, BD

      • Pamela Says:

        Bruce,

        I looked for you email and couldn’t find it. Thank you so much for your lovely comment on my blog, for always being so generous to me, for being so encouraging. Your blog is a constant source of wisdom and grace and I am so grateful for it.

        Peace, peace, peace,
        Pamela

  6. Wolf Pascoe Says:

    Bruce,

    I worked hard for four years in high school. Every decision I made about how to spend my time as an adolescent I made keeping in mind the goal of getting into an Ivy league school. I did all this to please my mother. After four years at Yale and more good grades, I was no better at thinking for myself than I was when I started high school, which is not an advertisement for an Ivy League education at the time. For me, learning to think came much later. The woman who interviewed you at Princeton apparently couldn’t think for herself either, which was also not an advertisement for the Ivy League.

    You, on the other hand, could think for yourself by the time you were applying to college. What education you needed for that you already had. This comes as no surprise to readers of this blog, who know an original mind when they see it.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Gee Wolf, What I’m thinking for myself at this moment is that I’m blushing 🙂 Here’s to honoring all of our paths—and for striving for that combination of respect for each others’ voices and minds, in all their differentness, and at the same time being connected together via nourishing authenticity. Namaste

  7. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    This story is awesome. YOU are awesome. Your 17-year old self was awesome. To know that Princeton wasn’t for you took…wait for it…self-confidence! I know it seems like what you did was self-diminishing, but if I think about it, that’s not at all the truth. To walk into that office and do what you did took so much courage. You turned a moment that could have been humiliating (badgered by your father to apply, stammering through an answer of what made you “Princeton material”) and you turned it on its head: You took ownership of your feelings. Princeton wasn’t for you. Nobody was listening to you, but you knew in your heart you were right. That’s a big moment.

    I’m going to share this with my stepson, who is not applying to Princeton (nor would he be a good fit), but is, at the moment, going through the admissions process.

    ps: I’m with Lindsey: what an asshole question. Princeton material. Ffft.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi KW, I must admit, your comment shows your gift for teaching, because I really did not see the take-away in these terms—and feel so affirmed in my old, lonely, oppositional self by your words. I’ve always thought it easier to be a rebel anti-hero (which is a sort of conformity in reverse) than to figure out not just who we are not, but who we are. So I thank you for helping me see a seed of that in a past I could not flee from fast enough. I know that sometimes it takes one to know one, and so I thank you twice over for your courage, compassion and your authentic voice—and for your ability to keep a sharp edge on the knife, calling it like you cook it, see it and love it. XO

  8. rudrip Says:

    Bruce: I agree with my fellow commentators. This is an amazing story. I am particularly taken with your sense of self as a teenager. How did your past prepare you for that moment? I always wonder, when people are faced with a crossroad decision, what, in his or her past, guided that person down that particular pathway. I believe your decision demonstrated your clarity of mind and of heart. Not an easy thing to do at any age. Thanks for sharing this glimpse into your life.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Rudri, I am struck by how we are all working together to find some balance between being completely true to ourselves and at the same time finding belonging in the group. Odd that I find this belonging in a virtual situation, something my seventeen year old self could not have then imagined. When I write about myself I fear coming off as narcissistic, and yet it has been said that if we go deep enough into the personal we reach the universal. Maybe what you, and other commentators, “see” in this story is our own go-it-alone self that still wants to be part of the group? I feel like we are crafting some sort of shared understanding—and in the face of your kindness I find myself wishing you trust in your creative process, in your voice (which is lovely) and in the possibility that we are ALL already connected… so, we might as well make this conscious, and we might as well strive for loving kindness, inclusion and compassion (particularly if it serves the kids who we are raising to be true to their own voices). Thanks again for kind words & Namaste

  9. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I love every bit of this, for more reasons than I could possibly say. Words and lessons to savor (and the sweet sagesse of maturing).

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Thanks so much, BLW—sending particular hugs of acceptance for you and your younger son as you traverse the slings and arrows of whatever outrageous fortune turns out to be our paths. All Good Wishes too

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