Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)


February 25, 2004:

Been there, done that
Parents Weekend senior-year style

My parents arrived from Missouri late Friday afternoon, around the same time that thoroughly soused packs of Bicker club members were making their way across campus for pick-ups, beating on plastic water coolers and bleating the praises of their respective clubs. "I-[expletive]-V, I-[expletive]-V," a crowd chanted as it wound its way up to Witherspoon. Walking south from Nassau Street, I passed a Coca Cola deliveryman who had left his truck to watch a member of Princeton's most storied eating club fully disrobe.

"What is this, a protest against the war?" he asked me.

"Are you kidding, on this campus? It's pick-up for the eating clubs," I told him.

"The what?" he asked.

Since freshman year, my parents have visited me with increasing frequency, their visits coinciding with the odd Princeton tradition, Bicker-related or otherwise. My father, who in his fourth year as a Princeton parent can navigate the campus as well as anyone, wonders if I'd like to spend another four-to-six years here getting a Ph.D. He likes to drive the rental around the roundabout, to negotiate for a permit at the booth, to recall my freshman year, when he rented a monster SUV, drove up and down Route 1 until it was pregnant with floor lamps and groceries, and ultimately parked it on the grounds of Butler College. My mother, whose feelings about the university have taken a turn for the better now that it seems certain I will graduate on time, is glad I decided to come to school here, after all. All of this leaves me with the suspicion that next year when I am attending school a continent away, they will secretly visit the Princeton in my absence. My mother will make forays to the newly opened pastry shop on Tulane Street for cream puffs and will peer clandestinely through Bernard Lewis's picture window to see how he's decorated his house. My father will sneak off to James McPherson's civil war class, which I never got around to taking, and to the B-floor of Firestone, where he will admire the antique framed maps.

Because the Swearengens like to eat early and often, we went to Lahiere's for a five o'clock dinner, a thing more easily come by in Missouri than in New Jersey. The hostess looked scared. She sent us to the bartender, who placated us with cocktails and goldfish-shaped pretzels. The bartender was a sports fanatic who, upon hearing that we were from Columbia, home of the Missouri Tigers, challenged my father to name the other universities with tigers for mascots (Princeton, Clemson, Auburn, and L.S.U.). We were finally ushered into the dining room, where we occupied the only table until the one next to us filled up with familiar faces: Professor Hanioglu, my former junior paper adviser, and Ambassador Finn, whose seminar on Central Asia I had taken in the fall. My parents were thrilled to meet some of my professors; I was shocked to see them away from Jones Hall, their natural habitat.

After dinner we went to Jadwin for the basketball game, a mismatch between Princeton and Ivy-rival Dartmouth. Not realizing that half of the student side is now reserved seating for members of the Jadwin Jungle — students who pay for the privilege of a special T-shirt, appetizers from Winberries, and transportation to the games — we sat in the wrong section and were quickly ousted by an angry bald man. I was disappointed we could not sit near the band, but it didn't matter. There were no outrageous antics, a letdown considering that for years I have regaled my parents with tales of the band's legendary misbehavior. Among my favorite anecdotes is an incident at the Princeton-Dartmouth game my sophomore year involving a Big Green guard with a large Chinese character inked on his left arm.

"I take Chinese, and that tattoo means [expletive]!" one of the band members shouted as the player lined up for the first free throw. Everyone in Jadwin heard it. The player missed.

"Correction: my [expletive]!" the band member shouted.

This time there were no such antics. The band contented itself with a taunt of "single digits, single digits" during a long run when the Princeton score was in the 30s and Dartmouth was stuck at 8. The perennial chorus of "sit down, you suck" was chanted halfheartedly whenever a Dartmouth player took the bench. We left with 12 minutes to go in the second half.

On Saturday we visited the Cotsen Children's Library, which my mother had been prevented from visiting on all prior trips due to scheduling conflicts. The entryway of the small library was taken up with two large strollers; beyond was a large, hollow tree where a mother read to her child. "I want to go up there," I said. My mother pointed out that I was too big for the staircase.

After the Children's Library we looked at the George Kennan '25 exhibit in the special collections room. Large American and Soviet flags flanked glass cases containing Kennan's letters to his mother, vintage photographs, and a report card. During Kennan's time at Princeton, grades were given on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 equivalent to an A and 5 a D, the lowest passing grade. Kennan's own report card showed a mixture of 4's and 5's. I called my father's attention to it, pointing out that Kennan had unremarkable-verging-on-terrible grades, yet went on to great things. My father pointed out that Kennan's grades improved markedly in his senior year, a trajectory my own have not followed.

Following the Kennan exhibit we moved down to B floor, where I showed my parents my carrel, an unappealing little cell that I share with three other seniors in my department. Of the four occupants, I had the smallest number of books on my desk, a fact that did not go overlooked by my parents, although it was obviated by my possession of what were clearly the best decorations. My parents admired a Russell Crowe pinup from Master and Commander, his breech-encased nether regions portioned into French and British mandates, and a postcard — sent from provincial Turkey by a fellow carrel mate — that I had labeled "Suzannistan" in her honor.

On Sunday, the last day of my parents' visit, we went to the Yankee Doodle Tap Room for brunch, where we ate toast and eggs-over-hard and admired the Norman Rockwell mural. A portion of one of the walls is covered in black-and-white photographs of noteworthy Princeton alumni. My father remarked that some of them had not benefited from their Princeton education: "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Rumsfeld: You did not get your money's worth. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Danforth: You did not get your money's worth." My mother was incensed that the sole female representative in the photo display was Brooke Shields '87. "Where's Meg Whitman? Surely there are some women C.E.O.s they could put up there."

On the way out we ran into Professor Gondicas, my Modern Greek professor, in whose class I had earlier explained — for wont of vocabulary — that my parents were coming all the way from Missouri for the sole purpose of attending the Dartmouth and Harvard games.

I introduced my parents.

"How were the basketball games?" Professor Gondicas asked immediately.

Before leaving Princeton, my parents asked for a tour of my eating club. I took them to Terrace. My father had been there before, when a plush green figure was suspended from the second-story window and the entire place smelled like the Chicago Seven had used it to conduct a prolonged bong session. This time the odor was beery. On every couch a prone body snored fitfully. My mother asked me if I had ever spent the night at Terrace, passed out on a couch. I laughed cryptically.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu