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.
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.