May 10, 2015
A Hard MIT Class
Picture this. You’re trying to shuffle past a gaggle of camera-wielding tourists. You bump into one of their shoulders; they regard you for a moment, then return to their conspiratorial whispering. Before you think up a phrase best voiced by a euphemism, someone walks past you saying, “That class is hard.”
You’ll probably roll your p-set-deadened eyes until only the whites show, thinking, “A class is hard? An MIT class is hard? Who else is paddling that Earth-deep cliché back and forth? Might as well start a novel with the lines, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’.” And you’d be right. If that sounds anything like you, you’re probably a douchebag and we should be friends.
The point is, MIT classes being hard, you don’t have to tell me about that. I knew it. Hours spent fixated on a problem with no end in sight. That nagging, hopeful feeling that you’re so close to the solution, the climax, the moment of insight, breakthrough. That nagging, awful feeling that the clever trick is going to be forever beyond your wits, and in place of the solution’s space will be a black hole, forever gaping at you.
It only took a week—my first week as a freshman, when I had to spend the first night reading twenty dense pages of Plato’s Meno, the night before my Anicent Greek Philosophy class—to tell me that things blurred at lightning-speed in the Institute, and you moved with the light, or learned how to in bruised capacities. But even then, there was one class I dreaded taking, one class I registered for, then dropped, then registered for again, then considered dropping. I just couldn’t do it. The thought of it made my spine weep. The thought of it…but I couldn’t escape it, you see. It was one of the General Institute Requirements. I needed it to graduate.
Another funny thing about classes at MIT. Their difficulty can be so asymmetrical. You spend ten hours stuck on a problem your friend figured out in the time it took him to pee. You sit in for a test and walk out of it with your heart sinking, while ahead of you, two euphoric friends say, “That was so good.”
And for this particular class, my first week in the fall was inundated with stories from others, about this one super-easy GIR they got out of the way. It was easy. It was fun. How could they say that? Am I really gonna take this class? Well, it ended up happening. One fateful afternoon, I found myself huddled with a small mass of other students. It was Day 1 of Beginner Swimming.
Story time. And if you know me at all, you know it’s gonna be a sad story.
So, a few years back, in Nigeria’s equivalent of grade nine, one of my high school teachers took a couple of us on an out-of-state excursion. I attended a small, fenced boarding school so the thought of leaving the gates, the thought of being out in the world for several hours was beautiful. We embarked on a four-hour road trip. We stared at trees and people, puzzled by the existence of an outside world—a state that is sadly too often my default within the Institute bubble. Eventually, we arrived at our location—one of my high school’s other national branches. This was one sweet-looking branch; the buildings were newer; the football field was grass instead of an expanse of sand that only turned green on photoshopped brochures. And they had a swimming pool!
I stood close to the edge of the pool, marveling at its surface, thinking that it was almost pretty enough to make me wish I could swim. Well, one of my friends Daniel must have been a mind-reader, because apropos of nothing, he said in Pidgin English, “oya Vincent swim” and pushed me. He didn’t do it nearly hard enough, but I was so startled I lurched forward and fell, forever it seemed.
Next thing I knew, water everywhere, breaking my line of vision, bringing darkness, pulling me down and down and down. My heart screamed. I tried to. Splashed. Swung my arms. Nothing. Nothing. And then, someone was pulling me out and I was shivering on the floor, my ears flooded with water, my nose in stinging pain, my head splitting. Melodramatic as it may sound, that was a truly awful experience, all of ten seconds magnified into what felt like a century. It was one of those persistent markers of growing up that followed me into adulthood. I didn’t just hate the idea of swimming. I detested it. It made my stomach roll in folds.
Did MIT care? Nope. Swim requirement was a thing. And one way or another, I would have to wade into those dark waters. (Well they were crystal clear, but you get the point).
The nicest day of the class was probably the first day. We didn’t really get much swimming done. The instructor told us that we had only two goals for the rest of the semester—to have fun in the water and to socialize. I asked if I could socialize with the class while simply drinking water. He chuckled. I was serious.
You know how everything moves fast in MIT? It turns out they really do mean everything. These were the things accomplished on the second day of Beginner Swimming—rhythmic breathing, rhythmic underwater breathing, rudimentary floating techniques, and at the end of the day, the ability to lay back in water, simply floating.
Well, in theory.
In practice, they unfolded like this: each time I tried to go underwater to practice my breathing, I stayed down for all of two seconds, got irrationally convinced that I would be trapped underwater for all of eternity, and shot back up, breathing like I’d just run a marathon. Floating was a hilarious affair, by which I mean just plain awful—I took a deep breath, tried to fall back onto the water. A second later, I was submerged beneath, kicking frantically and splashing my arms everywhere.
The instructor treated me like I was an Olympic swimmer. He smiled and nodded and gave me a thumbs up and said, “You’re getting it! You’re getting it! You just need a little practice in the water, and you’ll be more comfortable.”
I didn’t believe him.
The rest of the class was exceptional. Or at least light-years ahead of me. I don’t think there was ever a class where I was so unambiguously the single worst performing student in it. Sure, it was swimming, and we didn’t get grades or scores or rank, but by the time everyone else—and I do mean everyone else—was navigating from one end of the pool to the other on fins, I was still struggling to float, still terrified of what lay underneath the surface, and it was close to a month into the class.
I tried as hard as I could, but my bones seemed too tense, my muscles seemed to clench, each time I got in. I can’t explain why my fear of the pool was so psychologically severe. I keep thinking back to the incident in grade nine, which always comes to mind too vividly, but I think it was something more than that. Let’s call this unnamed thing The Failure Theory for now.
The instructor was always nice, but I could sometimes sense the stress I was putting on his patience. I was at such a skill divide with the rest of the class that he couldn’t always cater to me, because it would come at the expense of ignoring them. For instance, there were several sessions of paddling back and forth across the pool with the fins on, and he had to make sure everyone (else) performed these operations with the right gait and technique, which meant he had to observe each of them carefully and offer feedback between laps. Since I was nowhere near comfortable enough to do that, I had my own set of confidence-building exercises in a lone, separate corner of the pool. One of the lifeguards noticed what was going on and offered to help out. She offered me items like floaters—which the class normally did not use—and kept at me with different small exercises I could try.
It wasn’t a fun experience being alone in the corner of the pool, struggling with the basics while everyone swam ahead in comfort. It got harder to look in their direction, and even though I kept telling myself the ability to swim was trivial, and certainly not a kind of negative stamp on who I was, it got harder and harder to convince myself of that. I was always that kid in the corner, wondering who was watching me while I struggled, wondering what they were thinking.
Even then, I kept at the activities as best I could. I learned how to float, on my chest and on my back, with the floater and without it. I was able to glide through small distances, my face parallel to the water’s surface, half-submerged in it, my legs kicking out behind me in small, quick arcs. Each of those tiny successes was a reason for jubilation. The first time I floated on my back without the floater, I got over-excited, began laughing in the pool, and lost my balance. But still, the more I tried, the more those tiny markers of achievement came. To others, those achievements were trivial and insignificant, things mastered weeks ago. To me, they seemed to be everything.
And so of course, I did what a lot of us do in the wake of new confidence. I overreached.
One afternoon—this was one of those afternoons spent gliding from one end of the pool to the other, by now for the others without fins—I decided that I could join the rest of the class. Even if I needed fins and they didn’t, I’d still be able to lap with them. My instructor was excited and nodded his assent. And so, like the others, I stood against one wall of the swimming pool. Like the others, I used the wall to kick off horizontally onto the pool. Like the others, I shot forward. Unlike the others, I didn’t make it to the other end of the pool.
I glided. I felt myself gliding, and I got to the halfway point, where the walls were too far for support. Previously, all my swimming exercises took place close to the walls, and when I began to lose control of my body, those walls made it easier to grab on. But now, I had taken a bet on myself, pushed myself into the middle, my safety nets gone. And I made it!
I realized I was in the middle of nowhere, and panicked. My legs suddenly seemed thrice heavier. I flopped into the water, kept trying to stand because I was tall enough to, but the fins kept slipping beneath me, and I kept striking the water, and trying to stand, and falling and trying to stand, and falling and trying to stand, again and again, drinking water, inhaling it, panicking. After a tortured fifteen seconds—I think, it felt longer—I was able to stand, and I made it, by walking not swimming, shivering and utterly terrified, to the end of the pool from which I had kicked off.
“I almost drowned!” I screamed at the instructor, breathing heavily.
He laughed and shook his head. “Not even close. No one drowns in my pool. Good job.” Good job…did he really mean that? He seemed to.
And on the sessions wore, and on, until they were over.
I stuck through them all, more often in the corner than with the others, more often with a lifeguard than with the instructor, but at the end of those twelve sessions, I was able to do a lot in the water. I was able to move around, fin-less and floater-less, even if not for too far. The moments of intense self-consciousness, of feeling small and foolish, were often present, but even that became a sort of background noise, and I was more conscious of my comfort in the water. It made me feel clean and safe and nice in the final stages of the class.
And at the end of it all, I got the swim credit. Does that mean I can swim? Well if you shoved me into a deep pool, I’d probably drown on the spot, but choose something a bit kinder and I might surprise you with my, um, “skills”.
Earlier on, I mentioned grandiosely The Failure Theory, and I think it had very little to do with a horrible couple of seconds in ninth grade and a lot to do with the self-perpetuating myth propagated by those endless seconds. It was the nearly self-fulfilling myth of failure. All I saw were the obstacles, and all I saw were the people who would watch me repeatedly fail to overcome those obstacles. I saw the dark end before anything could begin, and I think a lot of that fear hindered me my first few weeks in the pool. That, and everyone else who did better, and me wondering if they were watching me, when they were probably too busy trying not to drink too much chlorine.
Ultimately, on a purely quantitative metric, I came out of the class with less skills than they did. They braved the deep pool while I stuck to the shallow end, and they did it like they had been doing it forever. But when those moments of comfort in the pool come back to me, the end-story of me liking how the water felt and wishing I could linger in a bit more, nothing seems to matter but that. The transformation. I wasn’t afraid anymore, and sure, I still sucked, but I sucked a little less. It felt like what I got out of the class was beyond quantity.
Eventually, other classes rolled along—actual classes you might say. The swim requirement became a thing far behind me, hazy in memory. But sometimes, I go to the Z-Center, and I step into the pool, and swim around. That simple class taught me more about what I could do, when I dared to do even in the presence of fear, and when I think of the instructor saying, “Good job”, you know what?
I believe him.