5 a.m.

5 a.m.

Dana Sheridan, Princeton University Library

Honorable Mention

2014-2015 Staff Essay Contest


At 5 a.m., I run on campus. The grounds are reduced to dark, unfurling paths of asphalt, brick, stone, and concrete striped with lamp light. I’m not fast or graceful, but I am persistent. It’s hardest to run in the winter. There’s a corner of the Chapel that, through some freakish combination of architecture and weather, becomes a wind tunnel that can literally stop me in my tracks.

There are no sharp sounds early in the morning. Instead, there’s the muffled whoosh of air handlers (each building has its own distinct pitch) and the scuff of my running shoes. Twice, I’ve heard people singing. A heartfelt R&B song on the steps of Frist. What I take to be a classical Chinese ballad, sung by a solitary figure in Prospect Gardens. The Dinky horn sounds like a bugle. A downshifting truck on Route 206 unleashes a carnivorous roar. An operatic chipmunk announces itself behind Edwards. In a stiff wind, the rigging on the flagpole over Blair Arch clangs, and I wonder how students sleep through the noise.

At 5 a.m., campus is an inky world touched by pools of light from doorways and studded with a blue constellation of emergency call box lights. Enormous raccoons emerge from storm grates, looking furtive. Rabbits dot the lawns, conclude that I’m a predator, and scatter like billiard balls. As I pass bulletin boards in lit archways, I read the weathered flyers (“Vote for Miheka, she’s your chica,” “We sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker,” “Prepare for the zombie apocalypse – by hitting people with dodgeballs”).

Students sometimes appear in the early hours, especially during midterms and finals. Once I nearly stumbled over a group of them asleep outside, piled together in their sleeping bags like puppies. The courtyard by Rocky often smells like chocolate, cinnamon, and bread, reminding me that campus is, in fact, home for many, and breakfast will be ready soon. Bicycles cluster in haphazard herds, with an occasional stray leaning on a table, parked in the middle of a sidewalk, or keeled over in a bush. In dormitories, stringed lights twinkle in shared spaces. A single purple light illuminates a window in Dod.

My thoughts are often a meditative jumble when I run – repeating, knotting, floating, vanishing. Occasionally, they harden into something cohesive and concrete. What I hope for are stories. On the very best mornings, the landscape of campus will evoke a story I can share with my children.

The princess ran across the stone courtyard toward the cloisters. A few more feet, and she would be free…

As the spell grew stronger, the evergreens moved closer to the stone mansion. In the garden, the plants sharpened into protective spikes…

Very few people know that rabbits have a secret University of their own…

The building was now completely hollowed out. They said it was a “renovation,” but the three masters knew exactly what was happening. The wooden box and key had to be found…

The student didn’t notice the purple light growing around him. He was close, so close to finding the solution in the chemicals before him…

She stopped, trying to catch her breath. The 13-story building loomed in front of her. If she could just get to the top, she could signal the helicopter with her last flare…

Something always snaps me out of the story: a recurrent pain in my right knee, an unlit patch of pavement I need to watch my footing on, the blinding headlights on a car that swooshes by, releasing unseen clouds of exhaust and cigarette fumes.

Sometimes – very rarely – I’ll hit a stretch where the pain drops away, my breath comes easy, and I forget I’m running. Instead, I am simply there. Pulsing, moving, and part of something both fierce and joyous. Energy thrums and vibrates in my feet, legs, torso, arms, fingertips, brain. My shoes crush pine needles, and I inhale their sharp, wild tang.

I keep running. Now the sky is a red, raw line. The peaked roofs and towers are becoming visible against the growing gray light of dawn. I feel the age, time, intelligence, pride, and beauty of campus seeping through the stones. I imagine my footsteps adding to those of countless others who have traveled the paths and sidewalks. The pattern of our steps combining to create an intricate design that spans over two and a half centuries.

At 5 a.m., I run on the campus of Princeton University. I marvel that, for the moment, I am a small part of its long story.