Thomas Dunne, Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students
Princeton Writes Prize
2016-2017 Staff Essay Contest
Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence. – Ovid
When I first arrived at Princeton I stumbled; at the entrance to West College there was an unexpected depression on the stone step below the door, on the right nearest the side with the handle. It caught me by surprise for two reasons: because I was nervous with expectation, and I also didn’t expect to encounter a defect on a campus radiating such manicured perfection.
Over time my foot absent-mindedly would seek out this indentation; there was something reassuring about its perfect size in relation to my foot, and the hard edge of the stair was well worn away at this spot. Except when water or ice collected there, it became habit always to step in this same spot. This was a quiet, almost unknown ritual for years.
One summer the Office of Design and Construction dug a deep trench around the building, put the ivy roots in custom-built pots, and waterproofed the foundation walls to fight against pervasive flooding. At some point in the renovation, the worn stone step was discarded and a replacement with a firm right angle was installed. The new stone felt unforgiving, and it was then that a few colleagues mentioned in passing how they, too, had stepped in the divot. At present we’re a few years in with the new step, and there’s no sign of softening or wear; honestly, it’s difficult to remember the physical sensation of the old worn step at all.
I’m hard-pressed to think of something more overlooked than an unadorned stone step on a campus full of gargoyles, pointed arches, and vaulted ceilings. Since the twelfth century, Gothic architecture has been deployed to sweep our eyes upward with height and grace, and it is a style as fitting for universities as for cathedrals. Our buildings, from the Renaissance to the Deconstructivist, embody and reflect our collective aspirations. The specificity of architectural terminology is dizzying; pediments and lunettes crown numerous doorways on campus. Once capable of rendering stonecutters as magicians in defiance of gravity, the wedge-shaped stones cut to span our archways are called voussoirs. The weighty cap and base stones of the columns on Clio Hall are identified as the abacus and plinth. Pursuing these most functional elements even further, the vertical supports and the crossbeam framing a door are called posts and lintel. Such designations continue with railings; each support and decorative embellishment is given a precise name with its own history. Only the step upon which we enter seems to rest in stolid anonymity.
Yet as it rests, the stone records. The bowl-shaped depression has been collectively carved by the countless thousands of us who have traveled through West College since 1836. At its heart, West College is a building of record-keeping, and I like to think of this depression as a particular type of egalitarian transcript. With equal measure, the stone has supported Pyne Prize winners and plagiarists. Crates of admission files were lugged in and out of the building by weary readers season after season until technological progress brought us to a digital-reading age (the weary readers still traverse nonetheless). Pressing financial troubles have been carried through by burdened families seeking relief and opportunity. Ideas for new courses of study, plaintive thesis extension requests, sandwich platters, copier toner, mop buckets, orientation t-shirts, reunion banners, and Commencement programs have all crossed that threshold countless times.
I know that at some nearly imperceptible level, the smallest parts of the stone break away with each footfall, traveling with us as we move through this place. Every step from every person does this invisible work. I myself have carried my own histories over this stone. In that building I first sat with the ineffable grief of losing my father, I’ve carried an engagement ring in my pocket as I sprung upon that step, and have now watched my own children navigate the uncertainty of uneven surfaces as they fully get their feet under them. Looking at this with unblinking honesty, I acknowledge that, like the stone itself, all this will eventually be discarded and replaced by something new, more fitting for the current use and need of Princeton. I cannot see nor feel the worn spot on the new step yet, but I know it is there, and I know that over time – decades perhaps – what it will reveal. It’s our recorded history; it is all of us.