Earn received a lot of admissions viewbooks when he was still in high school. The University of Georgia sent him a guidebook, as well as Georgia Tech, Emory University, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College. But there was one viewbook that caught Earn’s eye more than the others, and it was one of the few viewbooks he received outside of the state of Georgia—Princeton University’s viewbook. Every Georgia-based viewbook felt familiar to him; there was nothing special to him about looking at Tech Tower or the Georgia Arch again. And he was all too familiar with several people he met in Atlanta, how he’d have to keep his cool around certain people whenever they said something ignorant or hateful around him.
Princeton seemed like it was free of what he was used to seeing in Atlanta. Princeton didn’t look like a big city university like Georgia Tech or a “college town” university like the University of Georgia. And Princeton was in New Jersey, and certainly New Jersey didn’t have as many racist people that in the South. The guidebook seemed to reflect this. There were various shots of the campus, inside and outside of classrooms, and people of all races were in the photos in the guidebook. And the best part about Princeton was that it offered grants, not loans, for need-based students. It wouldn’t take him years to pay back a costly loan to attend Princeton like it would have any other school, inside or outside of Georgia.
Earn applied for regular admission to Princeton and was admitted without being placed on a wait list. He qualified for something better than a grant to Princeton—an endowed scholarship, established in memory of a Princeton graduate from the 1950s, that would cover all his undergraduate tuition. He thought Princeton was far away from the usual bullshit he saw living in Atlanta.
When he arrived at Princeton, he learned he was wrong about everything but the literal buildings on Princeton’s campus.
Earn was admitted into Wilson College, one of Princeton’s residential colleges and its oldest one. His roommate was named Tommy Barnes. To Earn’s surprise, Tommy was from North Carolina. He learned some things about Princeton not from the guidebook or one of the tour guides from the admissions office, but from Tommy.
Earn was studying in his room when Tommy barged in, flinging a book bag on his bed. Quincy Jones’ “The Secret Garden” was softly wafting out of Earn’s laptop speakers. “I need you to cover for me while I’m at rush for Phi Kappa Psi.”
Earn looked up at Tommy. “Why are you rushing?”
“My dad joined Phi Kappa Psi when he was in school here. He expects me to join.”
“And you can’t get out of joining Phi Kappa Psi.”
“My dad said I had to go to Princeton because all my other relatives went to Princeton. And when I went to Princeton, I was in debt to Phi Kappa Psi, because my dad joined Phi Kappa Psi just before he graduated.”
“So does the grant--”
“I don’t mean a grant, Earn.” A pause. “You know Captain Bartholomew Barnes?”
“No, I don’t know Captain Bartholomew Barnes.”
“He’s in Nassau Hall. I can show him to you. I’ve got some time.”
“I don’t really feel like going to Nassau Hall right now.”
Tommy grabbed Earn and the keys to their dorm room. “Let’s go right now.”
By now Earn knew about the history of Nassau Hall, told to him by upperclassmen and Princeton University tour guides from the admissions office. It was named for England’s William III. It was the oldest surviving building on campus. Once, the American government was housed in it. It was ravaged by fire a few times. Now, it was the administration building on campus.
Inside Nassau Hall is Memorial Atrium; there is a list of students from Princeton that fought in the Civil War. Tommy took Earn to Memorial Atrium. There, Tommy pointed out one name on the memorial: CAPT. BARTHOLOMEW BARNES. “He’s my great-great...shit, I don’t know how great he is to me. But he’s related to me on my father’s side.”
“Your relative fought for the Confederacy?”
“Why doesn’t it say it on this memorial?”
“Administration at the time didn’t want it listed here. Guess they were afraid of backlash.”
Earn nodded, concealing his rage over Memorial Atrium. “Makes sense.”
Expulsion in Princeton is usually a last resort for punishment for student misbehavior. Usually expulsion is reserved for students with repeated warnings for bad behavior. Earn’s first strike that would lead to his expulsion happened after a vandalism attempt. And he wasn’t even the vandal.
“I saw this one guy tagging ‘We want a football game’ on the side of the building after I returned from Clio Hall,” Earn said to the Dean of Student Affairs. It wasn’t unusual for students to have on-campus jobs at Princeton. Earn followed suit, taking a job at the admissions office. “So I tackled him. He said his name was ‘Adam Strangelove’ and he was a member of the Court of Tigers. It’s some sort of secret society at the University of Vineland. I looked it up. The last time they played football against Rutgers was 1875. I contacted the Department of Public Safety, and they arrested me instead.”
“You expect me to believe that, Mr. Marks? The Honor Committee didn’t believe this at all.”
Earn shrugged. “It’s the truth. Why would I be lying about some secret society I don’t care about?”
“I’m giving you a warning. The next time you commit a serious offense at Princeton, I won’t hesitate to suspend you, Mr. Marks.”
Earn sighed and left the Dean’s office.
Occasionally Earn would be asked to lead a student-lead tour of Princeton, consisting of high school students, their parents, and the occasional traveler that wanted something to do in between exploring the rest of Princeton, New Jersey. Sometimes, as he’d point out Wilson College or Robertson Hall, the home of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs, a tourist would ask Earn about Wilson’s quotes that appeared in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, occasionally accusing Earn of supporting a known segregationist. “I honestly don’t know,” Earn would say; the admissions office didn’t teach its employees exactly how to handle “that one moment when someone brings up Woodrow Wilson’s quotes from The Birth of a Nation.”
Most of the time Earn did various clerical tasks in the office. Typing up things, leaving notes for admissions officers, copying papers. Mostly tedious secretarial stuff.
Then one day he accidentally stumbled on some new student applications. As in he stumbled on a desk while leaving some copies for an admissions officer, and the applications fell off of the desk. Earn gathered up the applications. As he was picking up the applications, he noticed a note written on top of on one of the applications: “Typical pre-med student.” Earn looked closer at the application. The application belonged to a prospective Asian-American student. Earn noticed another note on another application: “SAT Subject Test scores lower than average.” It took a while for Earn to realize the SAT Subject Tests were what he knew were once known as SAT II tests. And he also noticed this application was for a prospective African-American student.
Earn noticed the majority of applications he accidentally knocked over had these comments written on the applications. All of these comments seemed to be targeted at specific prospective students—prospective students who weren’t white and male. The applications from prospective white male students, on the other hand, highlighted whether their parents went to Princeton or if they donated to Princeton University in some way.
Reading the applications made Earn mad. Between what he perceived as a cover up at Nassau Hall, being blamed for the shenanigans of some obscure secret society from some obscure New Jersey university, the constant questioning about Woodrow Wilson, and these applications, he’d had enough.
Earn ended up trashing the office he found the applications in. Papers were flung from the desk the applications were on. Pencils and pens went flying all over the room. Books were thrown. Chairs were toppled.
The next day Earn found himself face to face with the Dean of Student Affairs again. The Dean accused Earn of trashing the admission officer’s office, and Earn admitted he did so. The Dean asked Earn why he did it, and Earn replied “I don’t know.”
Earn was tired—tired from his rage, tired of the Dean, tired of Princeton. And yet he couldn’t believe he was face to face with the Dean again.
Earn didn’t respond to the Dean.
“I really can’t stress the severity of the situation enough. Full scholarships are few and far between and in light of what’s happened, you’re lucky you’re not in jail...” The Dean trailed off, knowing Earn wasn’t paying attention. “Mr. Marks?”
“You’re obviously a very bright young man. The accusations against you aren’t light. And it would behoove you to be a little more cooperative. Everyone else seems to have made up their minds and I’m trying to get a full picture. Now, please start from the beginning.”
The Dean was getting inpatient with Earn’s lack of answers. “The door’s closing on hearing your side of the story,” the Dean continued. “What you have to say for yourself.”
Earn took a deep breath and let out a huge sigh. “I woke up.” He paused. “That’s it.”
The Dean stood up, and, after noting Earn not giving testimony about the trashing of the admission officer’s office and making plans for his expulsion, left. The Dean’s secretary, Joanna, walked over to Earn after the Dean left. “This way, Mr. Marks,” Joanna said, attempting to coax Earn from his chair. But Earn didn't move. He was frozen in the chair facing where the Dean once sat.
Two police officers from Princeton’s Department of Safety walked into the Dean’s office.
And it was with those two words that Earn’s brief collegiate career at Princeton ended.