052. When you aren’t, and then you are

tldr: discrete

My final Tech piece I am uploading for the time being! In the future, I will post these when I actually write them into The Tech if I am particularly, really, proud of it. I hope you have enjoyed the articles I have uploaded so far, and I hope you enjoy this one too. Commentary at the end.

A year ago, sitting in the constant emptiness of my dorm room, I finally started to feel like I was on my path. I could feel myself headed in the cardinal direction I’d wanted to follow when I went to college. I was taking math classes, and writing, and working on some cool things in education. And at the time, I wrote,

“I never really saw myself as someone who ‘goes with the flow.’ More so, I saw myself as someone who can follow a sequence of steps. In this way, the steps become much less apparent in university, as everyone is on their own little path. Here’s the thing that I failed to realize until this year: sure making the path can be scary, but once it’s there? You just take the next step.”

Spring 2021

One foot in front of the other.

On this path — this road — I’ve been noticing exit signs pass by. Small ones, mostly. But some signs have me looking over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t miss my offramp. Realizing I should’ve stressed a little less when I was on freshman fall P/NR. Noticing a job application open at my favorite coffee shop. Seeing friend groups form that I could’ve been a part of. And I look in the rearview mirror and painfully read “Beware: Objects in mirror are bigger than they appear.”

And these paths could’ve led to completely different lives.

It’s not as if choosing to change directions would’ve been easy. It almost certainly wouldn’t have been. It would’ve been bumpy and messy and I would’ve cartoonishly rolled for a quarter of a mile before coming to a stop. But I would stand up, dust it off, and hopefully hopefully be somewhere I’m happy.

As more signs pass by, the further I can see the road stretching out before me. A cardinal direction is no longer good enough; there is no longer one clear step laying before me, but ten. And I come to realize how naïve I had been. Then, my brain does what it always does and time shifts from a time frame of semesters to decades.

I feel like I’ve been running. There’s a sharp pain below my ribs as I see the finish line just a few feet ahead. Then a few feet further. Just finish this week. Then the next. And I wonder,

“How long have I been running? How long until I feel comfortable catching my breath?”

Fall 2021

The answer to the first question is simple: ever since I noticed the track beneath my feet. Growing up in a poor neighborhood, I wonder if I heard the starting pistol go off and simply hoped it was a firework. But sooner or later I figured it out. I figured out I wanted to teach in second grade, and a year later I wanted to teach math. And I’ve been running.

Naturally, the second question is harder to answer. The role models in my life walked so I could run. And though I don’t quite know where I want to ultimately end up, I just keep thinking about this line:

“The further you go, the prouder I’ll be.”

Turning Red

So I just keep going. I’ll get a Bachelor’s here in two years. Go to graduate school. Get a PhD. Get tenure. And teach.

At what point do I stop? When do I return to California, grab a cup of coffee, and sit there, feeling the sharp pain dull?

How long until I feel comfortable catching my breath?

Part of me hopes that one day, shifting gears will be easier. I hope that taking an off-ramp won’t feel so dramatic. But I guess in hindsight any moment can feel life changing.

Playing an online game of chess with a ’24. Sitting down with a café au lait. The slow transition to being an upperclassman.

Life changing, yet subtly, gently, pushing you toward the next big moment in your life.

Some moments guide us a bit further along. They either make the transition easier or signify that something is changing. Orientation turns high schoolers into freshmen and Ring Delivery turns underclassmen to upperclassmen. Delivery arguably didn’t feel like a necessary transition, but I could feel myself changing.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to spend my last two years here.

“Do I keep running? What does that look like?”

Spring 2022

I can’t just keep adding extra classes to my workload; I won’t let myself. When do classes turn into research? When does learning turn into teaching? Advising into mentoring? I see these qualities in a lot of my friends who are graduating, and I don’t know how they got to that point. I hope this is a smooth transition, but I can’t even picture how it happens.

I always found it interesting that we break life into discrete numbers. You don’t become older on your birthday. The day before you turn twenty you certainly aren’t twenty. The day of, you aren’t either. Despite whatever celebrations may be going on, this day is just like all the ones before it, when you were nineteen.

Until one day, further along, it isn’t. And time engulfs you. It happens slowly but surely. Our life isn’t broken up into discrete numbers, but it isn’t as if you remember the days when the transitions actually happened. You remember the birthdays.

The summer after my freshman year, I checked Atlas, which plainly stated that I was a sophomore. I was a math major. One day I wasn’t. The next day I was. Ring Delivery unofficially does the same thing, in my opinion. One day you’re an underclassman. The next day you aren’t.

In the same way I checked the admissions page everyday for a week to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I’ve been wearing my Brass Rat every day. Some of my friends said they only planned to wear it on extremely special occasions, but I can’t bring myself to do that.

I wear my ring and think about the problem sets I did back-to-back in an empty pod lounge. The lonely walks back from Toscis in the rain. The days I let myself catch my breath, and the days I should’ve.

And I’m not regretful.

I’ve grown.

This piece can be found in The Tech here.

This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 11 volume 142. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@tech.mit.edu for additional details.

I wanted to write this piece for ring delivery, but of course things proceeded to get insane right afterwards. I think all together, ‘We Aren’t Kids Anymore‘, Reset‘, and ‘When you aren’t, and then are you are‘ form an interesting trifecta of weird COVID sophomore vibes.

I finally found the time to sit down and write this piece after talking to Kip on the steps of the little dome. I was in my blueish-greenish suit, with shoes that made me feel taller (physically and mentally), and I took an hour just talking.

I talked about my work with OCW over spring break. Over the course of a week, I typed 89 pages of lecture notes for 18.100A, and at the end of it I sat there, on the fourth floor of building 2, wondering if I should do this for the rest of my life. One class in one week? That’s 45 classes in a year, with some vacation time. If I even did that for 5 years, I would help more people and create content for more classes then I ever would teaching. And I felt my world shift. Just a little, but in a way that made me feel the expanse of opportunities MIT provides like I never had before.

He responded, kindly, by asking if that is something I would want to do for five years. If that sort of work is something I would truly enjoy. I don’t think I would, at least not at that pace for that long. “That long”. I can picture myself teaching for 50+ years but the thought of five years doing the grunt work that someone should do feels tiring. MIT feels tiring.

But Kip had a point. He followed this up with an idea I included in this article: “The role models in my life walked so I could run.” When is it okay to be selfish and do the things I want to do? Will I feel the need to keep pushing myself and pushing myself, letting my dreams grow exponentially as I try to keep up? “How long have I been running?”

I tried to weave these emotions and questions into this article, but the truth is I don’t know when I will start to feel satisfied.

Two weeks after spring break, we had a three day weekend. The Tech went to Maine. Surprisingly, those who went were the sophomores and the juniors even though everyone was invited. Together, we looked around the kitchen table of our Airbnb, and saw the future of the paper. At least for a year. On the way back to Cambridge, I discussed these feelings with another sophomore.

It’s weird, we both concluded. The feeling that two years ago I could’ve become a barista in my hometown and done nothing else for the rest of my life feels weird. The fact that I have 7-10 more years of school to go on this path is weird. COVIDs effect on our class is weird. Of course we wish we would’ve had a normal freshman year, but with the circumstances we were presented, would we have done anything different? This conversation sparked the portion of the article on exit signs, as we finished the drive of our retreat.

I have been thinking more and more about this article as I move forward to my junior year. I have a list of classes– one that seems to grow faster than I would’ve thought even a semester ago. Hell, a semester ago I thought I would run out of classes before senior year. Of course, the opposite seems to be happening. More classes are sounding cool. These same classes are sounding difficult. I have been wondering which will win out– the novelty of the classes or the energy of a first year who thought she would double major (already starting to dwindle).

But at the same time, I am realizing how much more there are than classes that I want to do academically. I heard about a reading group one of my favorite professor hold with his grad students I would love to attend if he would let me, I just haven’t asked yet. Or I could UROP. Or just write weekly for The Tech. Or just do what makes me happy in the moment (even if that is some combination of these possibilities). It is overwhelming, and exhilarating. What is most frustrating, is I know what thing I would most want to do– the choice that would make me drop everything just for the chance. And yet, I feel hesitant to go for it.

Nonetheless, the one thing I have started to feel more comfortable with since being at MIT, is that there will always be other options. Other paths I could’ve taken, decisions I will need to make. But the last thing I want to do is look back and be regretful. For now, I will be happy that now I can see the other paths.

“And I’m not regretful. I’ve grown.”

Published by Paige Bright

Hi- my name is Paige Alexandria Bright. I am a rising junior at MIT interested in mathematics and philosophy. I have been writing this blog since the beginning of COVID. Lets see where this goes.

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