I’ve been thinking about certain things a lot lately. I attribute this in part to Rush, in part to a slightly larger-than-usual number of crufty alums being around in the last serveral days, in part to various other things going on which I will not bother to ennumerate here. The point is, it’s funny how if you have major changes in your life, like going to college, they not only bring you what you expected (sometimes) but also what you didn’t.
I knew, of course, that MIT students got to pick where they lived, more or less. I thought that was cool. But I didn’t have any way of knowing what it meant for me, or what it would come to mean to me.
I was always sort of a rootless kid. I’m a jumble of ethnicities, none of which has a prominent role in my psyche. I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy the grade schools I was in to varying degrees, but I never felt entrenched in them – maybe high school a little bit, but only to the degree that I wouldn’t have wanted to switch high schools, since leaving it at graduation was pretty painless. My family doesn’t have “roots” anywhere we’ve lived (my stepdad and stepbrother have, but not the rest of us), like some people do, with many generations living in the same place and it becoming a part of one’s identity. I love my neighborhood back in Kentucky, and its culture, but not in the sense of knowing much about its history or being part of any sort of “tradition” within it, except maybe the politically-liberal-in-a-red-state part. It’s probably the closest thing I had to really being part of a culture, but it’s not quite there.
How strange that I came to college, of all places, to find a cultural identity, and a cultural heritage. It wasn’t something I did purposefully, or expected to happen. But when I came here, I ended up on 5th East, a place with a decades-old culture that is itself part of the larger twinkie/hacker/builder/destroyer/geek culture that encompasses the connecting and overlapping social circles of many halls of East Campus, Random Hall, Senior Haus, a couple of FSILGs, and scattered others.
Some hear me talk about the “cruft” (socially involved alums), and think it’s abnormal that people who have already graduated would hang out with college kids. I don’t think it’s abnormal. My reply to those people is, do your parents, or the other adults you know, not have friends who are more than a couple of years younger or older than them? My dad plays trivia with a group of buddies who range from their early 30s to around 60. How is it any weirder that some of my friends are in their late 20s, or even their 30s? Or that they’d want to hang out with us after coming home from work or lab, or invite us to their houses to hang out? They have plenty in common, interest-wise and personality-wise, with us, and where but in the MIT community are they going to be able to LARP (or a regular basis, not just at Cons) or act in amateur musical theater shows or write Linux tools for fun or whatever it is that’s unusual that they do?
I think it’s the “normal” case that’s more disturbing. You go to college, supposedly become part of this “campus community” that administrators everywhere harp on, and then four years later you just leave and it’s never part of your life again and the people who come after you have no sense of what happened before they came?
The other day, one of our new freshmen was moving into her room, which happened to be a room with a “history” – and not only that, but evidence of that history on the walls. The story is bizarre and not terribly positive, but it’s interesting and lots of people who are still around remember it. I told her the story as she moved in, and she was really interested, and thought it was cool that there was significance and history in her room.
A lot of the rooms on hall contain history, history that’s passed on through stories. People sit around in the hall and tell stories, or they sit around in a cruft house in Somerville and tell stories, and it’s “Oh yeah, so-and-so started [moderately famous company] on his computer in that room” and “So-and-so lived in that room when he went crazy” and “[famous tragedy] happened there” and “Parts of Kerberos were developed in that lounge” and “[famous hack] was built in that room” and “[bizarre stuff-of-legends social politics event] happened there”. I know my room has at least one interesting back-in-the-day story connected with it, and probably others.
Storytelling is a great tradition here, and it’s a major way that cultural heritage is offered and received. There’s old half-true legends that get told to freshmen by people who were little kids, if that, when the events that inspired them actually happened. There’s the more personal stories that happened to the storytellers or people they knew. No matter what sort they are, there’s stories.
And the neat thing is, the repertoire of stories isn’t static. Because the current students create new stories all the time. There are new charismatic personalities, new hacks, new budding entrepreneurs, new feuds, new triumphs and tragedies. I can listen to cruft tell stories for hours, but sometimes I’m the one telling them the stories…or telling the stories, old and new, to younger students. I like knowing that I’m making new stories, new parts of the history. It reinforces the good feelings that come with success and achievement. And it helps you get through rough times knowing that, even if there’s no other good to come from them, at least they’ll make good stories someday.
The cultural identity, the cultural heritage, that I have here is a major motive for my work in student government. I was never a student government person in grade school, now I’m a major figure. As I write this, I’m listening to the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack. In general, I’m not a fan of the character Simon, who talks the talk more than anyone but seems happy to let someone else do the work (funny how everyone knows a Simon). But I can relate to him in the moment that he sings “We will win ourselves a home”. Because that’s how I feel when I really get going, only I’m preserving and fostering more than “winning”. And not just for myself, but for the future students who will come to MIT. And hear the stories, and become the next storymakers and storytellers.
The idea for this entry came to me a few days ago, somewhere in the midst of listening to a story told by someone who graduated when the current freshmen were in middle school. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it.