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Doesn’t Feel Real by Paige B. '24

getting from one place to another

This semester, I took three classes. Two of them were math with my soon to be Ph.D advisor, and the third was with Marah Gubar– an amazing professor that I’ve had the pleasure of learning from for the past three semesters. This class was called the “Wilds of Literature,” and the main idea for the course is to pick a spot in nature relatively near to Boston, go visit it a number of times throughout the semester, and then write about your experiences/thoughts in nature. Throughout the course, we read a bunch of nature writing from Thoreau to Walt Whitman, as well as more modern writings (which I got a lot of inspiration for).

Ultimately, on all of these walks, I reflected a lot on my time at MIT and my relationship with academia and (mental/physical) health. There’s a lot I could say, but I think I will just put the piece here. I am really proud of the piece and hope you like it.

Doesn’t Feel Real


“How did having a disability affect your time at MIT?”

“It didn’t. Well, I mean. I couldn’t let it, so. It didn’t.”

cherry blossoms in front of McCormick hall being wiped away by the snow

Picture from 2021!

The flowers on cherry blossom trees, once bloomed, typically last about one to two weeks in springtime. At MIT, with these flowers comes the optimism of students. They signify a halfway point: between the cold winter days to the dreadfully hot summer nights. Between the “I can’t make it through this semester” to the “I can count the number of assignments I have left on my fingers.” The cherry blossom trees bear not only flowers, but freedom.

On the second floor of McCormick Hall in Room 239, where I stayed my freshman year, is a perfect unobstructed view of these trees. Having hardly left my room in the middle of a pandemic, I had a front row seat to see a late April thunderstorm wipe out the just-budding flowers before they even got to bloom. I watched the petals helplessly fall away. I wondered if they looked back at me with the same pity. And it was then, for the first time in the roughly two months I had been living on campus, that I decided to go for a walk with my friend Ana.

I was expecting a 20 minute stroll around MIT: 10 minutes going through the Infinite, 10 minutes walking back along the Charles river, and then parting ways so I could go back to my homework. Instead, when I met with Ana, she excitedly suggested we go for a walk along the Esplanade. I didn’t want to tell her no, and so off we went. 

The first ten minutes of our walk I was nervous. I kept thinking about my laptop that I had left back in my room. My assignments, carefully organized using digital Post-it notes, screamed for my return. But I had also never done this walk before, and I hate not knowing where I am going.

My mom used to say that I’m directionless; not in life, but by foot. I could follow a path I’d taken a thousand times before, but not one slightly adjacent. But to be fair to my younger self, I come from a town of one-story buildings, deadends, and no discernable differences between this street (named Maple) and the next street over (also named a type of tree). In Fresno, California, most of the time you can’t even see the place you’re trying to walk to. So as a kid without a GPS in her pocket, I knew that deviating from a path I knew well could result in becoming woefully lost. And not only that, but the one time I attempted ‘a shortcut’ and got lost resulted in what will forever be known in my family as the “AutoZone incident”. So I stuck to the paths I knew, and I became labeled as directionless.

By the time Ana and I made our way off of the Harvard bridge and onto the footpath, my nerves eased up. The thoughts shouting “my laptop is in my room” became relaxing.

My laptop is in my room.

It’s there, and I’m here.

Be here.

It also becomes abundantly clear that the path we are taking is simple—you can practically see all the landmarks you’ll be hitting: Hatch Memorial Shell, Longfellow Bridge, and, of course, MIT. I can see where I am going, and I’m with nice company too. Outside of Room 239, the world feels so much bigger. The sky is so clear that you can see the tops of the skyscrapers.

a foggy day in Boston, fog over the Boston skyline

It’s my senior spring, and I find myself walking around the Esplanade again. It’s been three years since the first time, and two years since Ana graduated. But today, most of the buildings are hidden through an uncomfortable fog. I wonder what it must feel like to work in those towers on days like today; is there a woman 100 floors up who can only see clouds when she looks out below? Does she feel like she’s on top of the world? Or secluded from it? I know things are happening up there, but I can’t see them, and because of that they don’t feel real.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been three years. As I walk along the Esplanade today, it’s as if a ghost of a younger version of myself walks besides me. A ghost materialized in the form of pure buzzing electrostatic stress from my freshman year brain. Stress over whether or not I was doing enough to get into graduate school, and whether or not I was making lifelong friends at MIT.

I look at this ghost beside me and feel a deep sense of pity. I wish I could go back and tell my freshman year self that things are going to work out. Beg her to slow down. But, in truth, I can’t help but feel like I’d do it all again. Who knows where I would be now had anything been different. Where I would be now had I worked less hard. It feels as though if I had done anything different, my career could’ve been nipped in the bud.

Today, I look ahead to graduate school and wonder if I will ever be able to slow down. The buzzing stress returns to my brain. My head feels… full. It’s like my brain is running at 1000 miles an hour while simultaneously being unable to process any of the internal or external information. I know things are happening up there, but I can’t see it, so it doesn’t feel real. Today, I empathize a bit too hard with the fogged-in woman on the 100th floor.

Something needed to be different. Something needs to be different. So why am I finding it so hard to change?

Once I find a familiar path, I like to keep on it, by foot and in life. In life, the path that I found was working hard on academics. I could put in the work, get the grades, and keep getting further and further along the path. And I’ve always loved school. But if you were to go dig up copies of my middle school report cards, you’d think I was lying, because in the span of the fall semester of eighth grade, I had missed more than a third of my classes.

The days after I had missed school, my teachers would always ask where I had been but I’d never really answer them. I’d say, “I’m sorry I missed class. Here’s my homework. It won’t happen again.” I didn’t want to tell them that the reason I was missing their classes was because I was in so much pain.

I had tried to tell them. Every day after lunch, my Algebra 1 teacher would ask how I was doing when I entered the classroom and I’d answer: “tired, but okay.” She didn’t think much of it. It simply became our routine. What I wanted to tell her is that I could start to feel a migraine forming in my left temple. That the slight aches in my neck, there from the beginning of the day, are no longer feeling so slight. That as much as I love school, I’m starting to feel like I can’t do this anymore. 

I don’t tell her all of these things. I tell myself that there are a number of reasons not to tell her: that it doesn’t matter, that class starts in five minutes, that she doesn’t really care how I’m doing. But really, the reason I don’t tell her is because I don’t know why I’m in so much pain. And as such, in some weird way, the pain doesn’t feel real.

By the time I was diagnosed with a physical disability later that year, I was in and out of school nearly every day. I finally had a name to put to my pain: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Type 3. And because it had a name, I finally felt like I could ask for help.

I requested a 504 meeting with the guidance counselor, the vice principal, and most of my teachers to get some accommodations. In preparation, I wrote a letter. A letter describing all the pain that I had been experiencing and holding in for the past year, and advocating for any number of solutions we could implement so that I could stay in school. I read the letter aloud to my teachers, and tried to avoid the shocked looks on their faces and the pity in their eyes. When I was done reading the letter, my Algebra 1 teacher spoke up. She said that whatever they could do to help me, they would.

A day or two later, my accommodation request was denied. The vice principal had decided that because I was getting good grades, I couldn’t possibly need accommodations. As if to say: “The world isn’t built for you, so we won’t be either.” Painfully, the next day I went on independent study, and never saw my teachers again. I needed to focus on my health, so I did.

Something needed to change, and I changed it.

As I’ve gotten older, this has proven harder to do.

Things got better in high school, for a number of reasons. Physically, being on independent study for the spring semester was like a factory reset for my body, which meant that when I started high school my pain got better. Or at least, I had stopped focusing on my pain as much. And in high school I obtained academic accommodations for my disability. In this sense, things were improving. 

However, I never used my accommodations. I didn’t like feeling different, and using accommodations to take breaks in the middle of the school day is not precisely blending in. From my perspective at the time, it seemed as though school (if nothing else, physically) was easy for others, and I wanted to be like them. It should be easy, shouldn’t it? But as the years went on (a brutal four years at that), my feet hit the pavement harder and harder. My bag began to feel heavier, and walking to and from campus proved difficult. All I could think to myself, as I refused to ask for help, was: “but shouldn’t this be the easy part?”

Over time I grew past this mentality. I started to accept that some things, like walking, are harder for some than for others. Which is why, I was shocked when I did the reading by Rebecca Solnit for the first day of the Wilds of Literature class. Solnit, off-handedly, states that walking is the “something closest to doing nothing” (5); “an amateur act” (4); an activity that “allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them” (5). I read this and didn’t just feel sad or angry. I felt defeated.

I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t made “busy” by my body as I walked around campus. I don’t feel like walking is an “amateur act.” And while sure, I concede that, for an able-bodied person, walking may be like the something closest to doing nothing, but to me it’s simply not. “Why can’t things be easier?” I ask myself.

It was then, in struggling to come to terms with the ableist language that Solnit was using, that I realized two things. Firstly, I decided to write about my physical disability for the Wilds of Literature class to, in some sense, put words to my struggling with Solnit’s piece. Secondly, I began to put words to the question “why am I finding it so hard to change?” 

It is hard to change because: almost by definition, it can feel easier to stick to the status quo. It is hard to change because: who wants to be seen as different? It is hard to change because: I feel like I need to push myself harder and harder to get into a good school. And maybe these are bad reasons to not change. They probably are. But at least they are reasons; words I can put on the page and say “Here I am. My experiences are real. See me.”

Unfortunately, I am realizing this in the spring semester of my senior year of undergrad. Unfortunately, my freshman year self still has a long way to go.

On my freshman year walk, I asked Ana if we could slow down for a moment. I didn’t tell her at the time, but I had started to feel the hefty impact of my feet against the pavement with every step I took. I needed to slow down, and so we did. We found the perfect people-watching tree to sit on and for a while we just sat there.

After a couple of minutes, it dawned on me just how many people were walking along the Esplanade. For a moment, life felt normal. This moment, seeing dozens of people walking around on a clear sunny day with their friends, their kids, and their dogs. I thought: This is what I want out of my career. I want to end up in a place where I can go for a long walk simply because it’s nice out, or I need a break, or the buzzing returns to my brain. Even if it is in the middle of the day in the middle of the week.

But then it hit me that it was the middle of the day, and the moment felt more solemn. I realized that, when there isn’t a pandemic, most of these people would usually be at work. The kids at school. The dogs at home, waiting for their owner to return. 

I watch people walk by and cynically think to myself that the world isn’t like this. The world doesn’t make space to be human. The world isn’t made for breaks, it’s made for breaking. 

Accommodation requests get denied.

Those at the top of the world find themselves fogged-in by the sky they hoped to touch.

Thunderstorms wipe out cherry blossoms before they ever get to bloom. 

All of these thoughts race through my head when I realize that, while this may be true, it doesn’t have to be. Sitting here with Ana is living proof of that. I told her that I needed to slow down and we did. I made space for myself, and Ana helped me do it. We sat there together and watched the world go by.

For the first time, I admitted to her and myself that something needed to change with how I was approaching MIT. The world might not make space for me, but I could, and needed to, make space for myself.

I wish I could say that I changed my ways during the rest of my time here at MIT, but I didn’t. I kept pushing myself harder and harder, and I kept learning that I couldn’t keep up with this. But I never changed. I kept telling myself that next semester I’d take it easier, or that this summer I would get some rest. Yet time and time again, I caved. I caved into a feeling of cynicism; a feeling that I wouldn’t get where I wanted to be in life by “slowing down.”

And maybe I was right to push myself so hard. By now, I’ve gotten into graduate school; in 6 years time, I will have a PhD in mathematics from MIT. It’s what I’ve always dreamed of, and I can’t help but feel like, had I done anything differently, things wouldn’t have worked out the way that they did. Surely there are alternate realities where I practiced better self care academically, but I can’t see it, and because of that it doesn’t feel real.

And yet, something needs to change.

I recently met with the professor who will be my advisor in graduate school. I’ve met with him countless times over the years, but this time is different. For the first time, I find myself telling him something I haven’t had the strength to before.

“I have a physical disability.”

“How did having a disability affect your time at MIT?”

“It didn’t. Well, I mean. I couldn’t let it, so. It didn’t.”

Tell him the truth. Tell him why you’re telling him now.

“But, I need to make more space for this in my life as a graduate student.
That’s why I wanted to let you know.”


It’s out there now. I’ve uttered the words I’ve refused to truly acknowledge for years. I’ve said it outloud. Now, it feels real.

Cherry blossom trees bloom once a year, and the flowers last for one to two weeks before the petals fall away making the way for new growth. The flowers signify a halfway point: between a nearly completed undergraduate experience, and the graduate experience that is yet to come. Between what does and doesn’t feel real. 

Sitting beneath the trees, soaking in the springtime smells I know I will one day be nostalgic for, I am ready for things to start feeling real. My friends arrive and we make our way across the Harvard bridge. I’m not expecting this walk to be 20 minutes; if anything, I’m hoping the walk never ends. 

Once across the bridge I went to that people-watching tree that Ana and I went to on our first walk. I made my way to the dirt and sat with my back against the tree. I brushed my fingers against the grass, rustling softly in the wind. I closed my eyes and heard the river water pass by. The sun begins to set, and I breathe in this moment.

My backpack is in my room.

The buzzing in my head has subsided.

And the sky is so clear that, for a moment, I swear, I can see the 100th floor.