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

December 20, 2000:
Okay, Princeton, tolerate this!
It does matter where you're from, except when it comes to ergs

Last December my high school history teacher invited her former students to come back to speak about their college experiences.

"I haven't talked to my roommate since September," said a freshman from Penn. "Although I often want to ask her why she sits in front of her computer with a toothbrush stuck in her mouth. Probably it's just some kind of oral fetish."

"One piece of advice: get a single!" suggested a girl from NYU, who at the time was engaged in bitter debate with her three suitemates as to who should pay for the cleaning supplies for their shared bathroom.

"The best way to make friends in college is to join an athletic team," a freshman rugby player from Williams advised. "But be warned - people are going to judge you as soon as you tell them you're from Missouri. And when you tell them that you went to Hickman High School, they're really going to make some unpleasant assumptions. Hick. Man."

One year later, I've found all this advice to be relevant here at Princeton. I have a single room, and I'm a member of the women's openweight crew team. When people ask me where I'm from, I give them the name of my town. I told my dentist, whose office is decorated with poster-size reproductions of the Saul Steinberg cartoon that depicts midtown Manhattan in prominent detail and the rest of the country as barren desert, that I was from Columbia. He assumed that I meant that I was a transfer student from Columbia University. When I tell my fellow classmates that I am from Columbia, they assume that I mean either South Carolina or the South American country, and dispense either Strom Thurmond or cartel jokes accordingly.

Then there's the name of my high school. When people ask me where I went to school, I give the school's full name, jamming the words together: davidhhickman. Davidhhickman sounds like the sort of school where socially conscious parents would send their over-privileged children for a dose of cultural enrichment. It sounds like the name of an important historical figure, like davidbengurion or davidlivingstone. Never mind that the real David H. Hickman was just the guy who gave the land for the school, and that the institution itself is a large public school that offers an eclectic mix of advanced placement and livestock management courses.

When I do admit that I am from Missouri, people assume that I was admitted in order to fulfill the "Midwest quota." When I tell people that I am on the crew team, they assume that I am a recruited athlete with sub-par standardized test scores who is depriving a legacy with sub-par test scores of his rightful spot. My Arabic professor, who, thanks to requisite class participation, knows that I am both a Missourian and a member of the crew team, seems somewhat skeptical of my intellectual capacity. Her suspicions were likely raised when I told her that I was inspired to take Arabic after watching Lawrence of Arabia. I later explained to her that it was a joke, but she remains unconvinced.

There is on this campus, however, a bastion of tolerance, a place where one's geographic locale is insignificant compared to one's erg scores: the boathouse and Carnegie Lake, home to Princeton's crew teams. Although I had resolved to try out for Princeton's crew team before arriving on campus, my plans were solidified when I found, under my door, a bright orange flier reading: "Ladies and gentlemen, Princeton crew wants you! No experience necessary."

Initially, over 70 freshmen came out for women's openweight crew; 20 remain. Of the three coxswains who originally manned the novice boats, two have left. Fall practice was spent rowing on the water or on ergs, stationary rowing machines consisting of a flywheel and a bicycle chain. Each offers distinct advantages and disadvantages: while rowing on the water is generally regarded to be less monotonous than rowing on an erg, it must be considered that Carnegie Lake is home to an aggressive contingent of Canada geese with unsavory sanitation habits. However, the erg room itself is home to an equally aggressive contingent of men's heavyweight rowers.

For all the pitfalls associated with rowing, such as blistered palms, overlydeveloped quadriceps, and the sacrifice of two hours every day to practice, there are benefits. The team is composed of both seasoned rowers from Eastern schools like Groton and St. Marks, and novices from other parts of the country. Disparities between high schools and states disappear, however, amidst the communal vomiting that ensues after a series of strenuous erg workouts.