055. Halfway

tldr: in more ways than MIT can take credit for

"Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where I sit.
There isn't any
other stair
quite like

Between math research and other responsibilities this summer, I’ve been taking some time to reflect on the past two years. I can tell I’ve gotten somewhere– halfway between freshman year and something bigger than graduation. In this blog I will try to describe how this feels, though I must say I’m not quite sure how to do so. If anything, maybe in a few years I can look back on this blog and realize how completely wrong I was, as I often do these days in some capacity.

Last year when I went home, I got to escape MIT for a few months. Granted, my entire wardrobe had transformed into MIT merchandise which meant it was hard to escape the school completely, but at the very least I wasn’t on campus or taking classes. I just got to reflect on my first year and the overall conclusion I reached?

It sucked.

This was true for a plethora of reasons (not to state the obvious example of COVID), but one of the largest factors was myself. I pushed myself too hard. I think this happens with most MIT students at one point or another. We take too many classes or take on too many responsibilities and our mental/physical health suffers. This is so common in fact that there is a word for it: hosed. For me, this meant taking five classes, three of which being math and another being 8.02 (Electricity and Magnetism). I nearly died.

Shortly after the semester ended, I wrote the following in a google doc of complex feelings I’ve yet to fully digest:

“”If sky’s the limit, why am I always staring at the ground?”- Drew Gasparini.

Almost ironically, I felt like Icarus taking five classes and I was so ecstatic to feel this way. And then, almost more ironically, I fell. I found myself staring at the ground I often used to see before MIT.”

I used to read this quote and feel so ashamed of how naïve I was. But of course I was naïve. I was a first year. I wish this alone made me feel less mad at my past self for my mistakes, but mistakes have that sort of effect don’t they? Mistakes stick out, like an uneven sidewalk taunting us for tripping over them.

Now, however, I read the quote and feel empowered. The friction between my feet and the ground is what pushes me forward. So I look to the ground to see where I’ve been, and if I fall I will take comfort in the fact that I will make more memories in the process. I will test my limits but remember where I came from *and that’s* empowering.

"I'm not at the bottom,
I'm not at the top;
so this is the stair
I always

I won’t say I’m not prone to naivety anymore. Of course I am. I am a rising junior who still wants to try too many classes and take on too many responsibilities. But if first years and (potentially some) second years are going to look to me for some semblance of maturity (before they realize that no one actually has their shit together), I want to stop and put some thought into how I want them to perceive me.

If nothing else I want them to see that I’m still struggling. MIT doesn’t magically become easier just because you’re older (after all, did high school?). This isn’t to discourage them from asking me for advice or things like that– I just mean that in this moment, now more than ever again, I am more relatable. As the saying goes, I am the youngest I will ever be again. So if there were ever a time for people to get some insight into the MIT experience from me, it would be now.

Perhaps this is why I like documenting my experiences so much, in these blogs and elsewhere. Writing down what I am going through means that one day I can reflect on them again. In the same way that some professors struggle to remember what it was like to not understand the material they are teaching, I worry that I will forget what it was like to be me. I worry that I will forget “the ground” and thus not be able to find comfort in it.

So I don’t want people to look at me and see a perfectly composed undergraduate. That isn’t what maturity looks like. In fact, I feel like it’s immature to act like you have it all together. If you do, congrats more power to you, but otherwise pretending to lack flaws feels more harmful than aspirational for both the onlookers and yourself.

All of this being said, I think I just want to be perceived as normal? Well, not quite because no one is really normal, but given that that makes my natural behavior normal, I still think this is the right word.

Down to Earth.

I’m no longer a first year, but I’m also not a senior. Somehow both of those facts are comforting and uncomforting at the same time, but it is the truth.

"Halfway up the stairs
Isn't up
And it isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery,
It isn't in town."

When I was much younger I used to worry about if my experiences were normal. On the one hand, if they were normal, then I worried that I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough. I didn’t want to be someone who simply swam with the tide– at the very least I wanted to know if I was. On the other hand, if they were abnormal, I worried that I wasn’t experiencing what everyone else was.

I didn’t want to be like everyone else, and I didn’t want it to be clear if I was.

I was anxious about the things I didn’t know I should be worried about. But maybe this set is actually empty. What good does extra worrying get you? This is partially why I enjoy school so much. In school there are always plenty of things to worry about presented before you, and a lot of incentive to do something about it. I can study for a test or do my assignments. My to-do list’s completion is depicted in a Canvas calendar of assignments and how well I completed the list is reflected in some way (a grade or a “Good job!” sticker).

But I feel like soon I should stop worrying about those sorts of things. I should be able to leave the classes behind and just be happy to be here (where here actually is I have yet to figure out). It was always so inspiring to see upperclassmen actively choose not to worry about taking a bajillion classes or going out of their way to get hosed. Hell even some underclassmen can do this well.

Letting go of the security blanket of clear-cut goals seems to reflect the acceptance of something bigger, and I want that for myself. And while I am closer to accepting this new thing, it is just out of reach.

So now instead of worrying about things I should presently be worried about, even if I don’t know what those things should be, has been replaced with worrying for the future. Like, when will I know if I’m done? When will I know if it’s okay for me to just be happy with what I have and accept the things I don’t? I find it inspiring to see people settle down, but also worry that I won’t ever be able to all the while wondering if I would ever want to.

For instance, I want to pursue an insane goal in education (that I’ll talk about soon enough in another blog) that feels so exhilarating and actually reflects what I want to do with my life, but I find it so daunting to think that one day I might change my mind. Or to think that I won’t.

I don’t want to throw away my dreams just because my dreams might change, but I also don’t want to pursue them and fall victim to comfortability.

Over the last two years I’ve become more comfortable with the uncomfortable, so much so that I’m now uncomfortable at the thought of once again being fully comfortable. But for right now I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m not quite at the point of actively being able to do anything about the career goals I might want to pursue, and I’m no longer worried about if people perceive me as different. I’m just existing in this weird liminal space between sophomore and junior year, but I feel like I should be more solidly in one place than I am.

"And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn't really
It's somewhere else

I used to hate summer breaks. I felt like these breaks were just a waystation between things I actually wanted to be doing. What I hated most was the timelessness of the season. Even over winter break the days are shorter so you can feel the time passing by instead of feeling like you’re frozen in place. I haven’t felt this way in a while. I used to be able to do everything that I wanted to during the normal school year, so why would I want to leave the normal school year?

But now I find myself trying to do things I normally don’t have time for. This summer I am researching and writing and reading. And who knows, maybe next year I’ll fly to another country. The main thing I know is that for now I have time, and I know this won’t always be the case. 

Alum of MIT often say that the real world is far more chill than the reality of classes and problemsets and tests. While I accept this to be true (often saying “MIT is a hell of a thing to happen to a person”), I wonder if I’ll be able to make the decisions for myself regarding what I should actually be doing. I think I will. I hope I will.

But for now I’ll just laugh at the thought of having to think about making a meal during the semester. I’ll find the idea of “not knowing what to do” laughable. And I’ll enjoy the moment while it lasts. Because it won’t.

I don’t know when this feeling will end, but it will. When it does I’ll be ready. But for now I’m here. Who knows where I’ll be next.

The parts quoted in purple are from A.A. Milne’s children’s poem “Halfway Down”. I particularly like the cover of this poem by Amy Lee.

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.

4 thoughts on “055. Halfway

  1. i like the poem cover!

    but I’m also not a senior » attacked >_<

    MIT is a hell of a thing to happen to a person » true, but so are things like raising a child or starting a company or fighting for tenure 😛 (i guess what i'm saying is, i don't actually believe post-mit is more chill or less stressful than mit; the pressure is just of a very different type)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The poem and the cover are both truly some of my favorites, even though they are both so short!

      I think you’re right, I think it does come in a different form. I still think (or at least hope) this form is less time-crunchy stressful than it is with classes and psets, but of course there are numerous possible counterexamples to this hope.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. oooooooh it looks like someone is applying to be a blogger!!! also wow writing a post to a song

    worry that I will forget what it was like to be me » this is a fear i’ve thought a lot about, especially in the context of trauma. which isn’t quite the same, but i think there are similarities. there’s this fear that i look back and think “maybe it wasn’t that bad”, or even worse, that i look back and can’t remember what it was like at all. it’s easy to blot out negative experiences so that’s why i think it’s important to cover them

    Down to Earth » from https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/why-mit/ : “when i was in high school i heard people say that MIT graduates tend to be really grounded[…]”

    cover of this poem by Amy Lee » that’s a lovely cover

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! (Lol) I mostly am just using it as an excuse to make sure I actually make time to write this summer and I’m glad it’s actually working out. My favorite part of applying the previous two years was having Something more to do

      I have also thought a lot about this with regards to my life though in a very different way. Specifically with gender, and not remembering nearly anything from when I was younger/all the photos that weren’t taken of me because I hated them. I also worry sometimes that what I’m writing about is painting things in a purely negative way which is also not the best thing. As easy as it is to blot out the negative experiences I wish I remembered the things I actually enjoyed from those times even if they were smaller

      Grounded: sometimes I feel like you know every blog lol thank you that was a very interesting read

      Liked by 1 person

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