Mar. 3rd, 2014

Or, why I *still* HTFP.

I graduated from MIT 30 years ago. Naturally, I'm getting all kinds of cards and letters inviting me to come back for the reunion and give generously to the Institute.

My time at MIT was bittersweet, with the emphasis on the bitter. I haven't really been back much, either in body or in spirit. I never felt a part of the place when I was there, and I don't really feel much a part of it now. My wife, who flunked out of Wellesley feels more attachment to her alma mater than I do to mine. I never got a Brass Rat. Gold had hit an all-time high in 1984, and the Rat is ugly enough as it is; it's doubleplus ugly in base metal. I've never felt a need to go back and get one.

There were two major things while I was there that really soured my experience. The first was social isolation. I was a weird kid. Really weird. Now that I look back on it, I realize I was really REALLY weird. Having Aspergers was bad enough... there's a lot of that at MIT. For me, compounding that was a seriously warped sense of how people get along and interact with each other. Bullying left me scarred and paranoid; who knows when my new "friend" will turn on me and stab me in the back? Growing up deeply steeped in "guess culture" had me searching out hidden agendas where there were none. I felt I couldn't trust anyone to be straight with me, and I in turn wasn't straight with others. Having parents who prided themselves in how they held themselves apart from "mainstream pop culture" left me with very little in common with the rest of the world (I believe their social sensibilities were trapped in amber back around 1949...).

When I was accepted to MIT, I thought I'd come "home". I thought the place would be filled with weird, folks, nerdy folks, dorky folks, folks Just Like Me. I was disappointed to find that, relative to me, MIT folks were positively *mainstream*, and somewhat hostile to "nerds". THAT is how off-the-charts Weird I was, and how badly I was mismatched to the folks around me.

So there was social alienation... and then there was institutional alienation. It is said that getting an education at MIT is like trying to take a drink from a firehose. This is held out as a Good Thing: there is so much learning available in such volume and speed that it's impossible to take it all in.

Recently I came to another realization. A "firehose" takes on another name when it's trained on people. It's called a "water cannon" and its purpose is to repel undesirables. To rid an area of unwanted trespassers. To send the clear message to Stay Away.

I was typical at MIT in one way: I had developed no study habits in public school because it all came so easily to me. I could get Bs in my sleep and As with a little effort. I struggled mightily with my classes. Since I had grown up believing that my worth as a human being was directly tied to my grades and success in class, I felt like my whole sense of self-worth was shot out from under me. I didn't seek help for two reasons: first, I felt like I was such a pathetic unworthy putz that I wasn't even worthy to darken the doors of the professors or TAs. Second, and I didn't figure this out until much later, in many cases I was SO confused I didn't even know which QUESTIONS to ask, never mind anything else. (I had the same feelings when I worked for a well-known edge networking company that's heavy with MIT folks...)

I remember at one of the gatherings during freshmen orientation, one of the speakers said "Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won't graduate".

The takeaway that I got from all this was "You're not wanted here". The firehose was bowling me over. I felt like the Institute was TRYING to weed out the weak ones so as to make room for the "deserving". Which, of course, made me borderline-undeserving. I never sought out "interesting" research or project opportunities; I figured the researcher in charge would check out my grades and then go "Why should I bother with the likes of YOU?" I was KEENLY aware of anything that reinforced this attitude. I was talking to a friend about maybe taking a "fun" astronomy class. He said "Yeah, if you've gotten all As and Bs so far I'm sure your advisor would sign off on that". Having just gotten a "D" in 6.002, I instead crawled back under my rock.

I felt that I in my misery was invisible to the Institute. There was plenty enough grumbling in "The Tech" (the student newspaper at the time) but "Tech Talk", the Institute paper, was all happy news all the time. This researcher got a fellowship. That professor got a Nobel. Look how wonderful we are to the community. Nary a peep about those who might be struggling.

The ultimate insult? No handshake at graduation. Here it was, after struggling mightily against my inner demons and the Institute's indifference, I manage to graduate by the skin of my teeth. Still, GPA doesn't matter when claiming one's diploma. I could walk that stage as proudly as any of my classmates. In our graduation instructions we were specifically instructed NOT to try and shake the President's hand. I suppose this may have been some time-and-motion expert's way of making sure things moved along, but now that I look back on it it may a well have been a slap in the face. "Here, here's your lousy piece of paper, now don't let the door hit your ass on the way out". The ONE time that the Institute could have put a human touch to their otherwise indifferent attitude, and they blew it.

My wife went on to get a bachelor's degree from Clark and a master's from Lesley. Both times she got a handshake. I saw video of a recent MIT commencement. Looks like they're getting handshakes now, too.

Where's my handshake? Do I get one merely for the fact that I've survived the place, or do I have to "buy" one through a "generous donation"?

They never cared about me then. Why should I care about them now?

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