Tooke's Take:  June 7, 2000

The P-Bomb
Or Why is it so hard to say you went to Princeton

By Wes Tooke '98 (email:

New Orleans, LA-I spent much of last summer deliberately ignoring the siren call of a full employment economy, instead choosing to wander the state of California. In late July I was hiking alone in the high Sierra when my Achilles tendon blew out. After 24 hours of very unpleasant limping, I found myself at the end of the road. Literally. A long dirt path-just wide enough for a truck-came to an end near a tiny tackle shop and country store. The odds of catching a ride to the nearest hospital seemed remote.

Remote, that is, until I saw the man sitting behind the counter. He was utterly unremarkable from the eyebrows down, but perched on his head was a cotton object that told me everything was going to be all right. He was wearing a Red Sox cap.

Sure enough, two hours later I was bouncing in the cab of a beat-up flatbed toward Fresno. By the time we reached the first paved road, we had exhausted almost every possible topic of conversation: Pedro's fastball, Johnny V's knee, and the great evil that resides in New York. But sometime shortly after the disgruntled rumble from the tires had become a smooth roar, my new friend asked what should have been a simple question.

"What do you do, man?" he asked.

"I'm in college," I said.


I paused. "B.C."

Even now I have no idea where the answer came from. Boston College? I don't even like the school's football team-not even when they beat Notre Dame. All I can deduce is that I felt as if our conversation would be damaged if I mentioned that I'd gone to Princeton.

And that wasn't the first time.

A certain town in New Jersey

When it comes to people I've actually lied to, the list is fairly selective: the Red Sox fan, a hippie I met at Jazz Fest, a pushcart vendor who worked trail crew with me. Nevertheless, when strangers ask me where I went to college, I generally tell them New Jersey. I only mention Princeton if I'm pressed for details.

I would view these episodes as just lingering manifestations of my privileged white-kid guilt if some of my friends from Princeton didn't sometimes behave the same way. An ex-roommate of mine often performs remarkable verbal gymnastics to avoid mentioning a certain town in New Jersey when he talks to girls in bars. He even has an expression to describe the first time he mentions Princeton in a conversation with someone he has just met. He calls it "dropping the P-bomb."

I know that this little phobia is my problem, not Princeton's, and perhaps graduates more secure than I have never encountered it. And my fear of the P-bomb is hard to articulate. After all, I am wonderfully proud of having been educated at Princeton, and I firmly believe that I was blessed with the best undergraduate education in the nation. But I am also conscious that to many people the word Princeton still means martinis, country clubs, and Alex P. Keaton, the yuppie-to-be character from the 1980s television sitcom Family Ties. And maybe that strikes a little close to home.

It's also possible that for all my self-absorbed wanderings I've become even more of a classist prick than the two banking brothers from Trading Places. I wouldn't rule it out. But maybe my phobia also says something larger about the odd educational stratification in America at the end of the 20th century. I wouldn't rule that out either-and while I didn't pay enough attention in my sociology classes to say anything intelligent about that issue, I certainly think it's interesting to ponder.

Also interesting, of course, is the idea that a person would drive a stranger four hours to Fresno based solely on the fact that he and the stranger share a fondness for a baseball team that plays 2,000 miles away. That, however, is an idea for another day.

Wes Tooke '98 hails from Boston and is a regular contributor to PAW's Web site.

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