One thing that is a very strange feeling is being an insider. Since I lived in Cambridge in college, I’ve turned into something of a guide at wikipedia to subway stops and restaurants. This makes me feel *really* unconfortable since I’ve never thought of myself as an insider. I’ve had a problematic relationship with MIT, and the idea that I have some useful privileged knowledge even if it is as something simple as the fact that “inbound” turns into “outbound” when you cross downtown or how to get to Mary Chung’s from Harvard is very disconcerting.
I think what disturbs me is that it is reasonable to believe that in about five to ten years, I’ll be in the “new inside”. As I’m walking around at wikimania, I’m seeing new power structures form, and if one is not careful, new power structures develop the pathologies of the old power structures. I think the reason I felt it necessary to tell that story about the “fairy princess” is that no matter where I go, and what happens to me, I don’t want to lose the memory of waiting and the memory of humiliation and rejection. It keeps you human. That’s one thing about the fairy princess that I really wonder. I wonder if she has ever been an outsider, or if she has a painful memory somewhere of humilation and rejection.
Let me tell another story. In the fall of 1991, I got my rejection letter from MIT Physics Graduate School. I still have it somewhere, since I’d like to read it if I ever end up giving the commencement address at MIT. I was mad, and hurt because getting a rejection letter from MIT was like getting a goodbye note from someone you loved. I had a friend who told me that MIT had a policy of not accepting its own students, but I didn’t believe him and in any case, he got into Harvard Grad school and I didn’t.
That day I got a letter from a dean asking all seniors about their experiences at MIT, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. I got called into his office. Unfortunately, it seemed that he was just interested to see if I was psychologically OK, and I don’t think he took any of my concerns seriously. One thing that I learned about this is that one way the system deals with malcontents is to say that if you are angry, then you obviously aren’t thinking straight, and of course if you aren’t angry, no one notices you.
There is one part of the letter however, I still somewhat regret. I had worked somewhat with the Dean of Undergraduate Education at MIT. A very formidable woman, who had worked on education reform at MIT for decades. One thing that I wrote in the letter which I forwarded a copy to her was that her goals were noble and well-meaning, but that ultimately what she was doing was useless because the system was too entrenched and her life’s work was not going to amount to anything. And I think I also added some specific arguments to back up that assertion.
I think I probably would have phrased things somewhat differently had I known what I found out shortly after writing the letter. She had terminal breast cancer and had about a year to live.
I always wondered what she thought of what I said. I hope it didn’t bother her too much.
Rest in peace.