This semester, almost all of my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays take place in Building 4. (Yes, that’s its actual name: Building 4. What, you actually expect MIT kids to remember things that aren’t numbered?) Besides the plenitude of classrooms, some of Building 4’s most enjoyable features include an über-convenient café, an Athena computer cluster (not to mention two other clusters nearby, in Buildings 12 and 2), Killian Court, proximity to the Infinite Corridor, and – most relevant to this blog entry – easy access to the Undergraduate Math Office in 2-108.
Why is the Undergraduate Math Office relevant? Two reasons. First off, I’m a student grader for 18.02 (multivariable calculus), which is one of the freshman GIRs. Each semester, the Math Department (and most other majors at MIT) hire a bunch of undergraduate minions – I mean, employees – to help out with the brunt work of grading the hundreds of problem sets MIT students produce every week. Because 18.02 was my favorite class when I was a first-semester freshman (Classical Mechanics, you’re cool and all, but I’ve realized lately that Calculus is more my thing. Especially when she starts going all Stokes’ Theorem on my psets. No hard feelings?), I submitted my name as a prospective grader…and I was hired! Woo!
So, that’s the first reason the Math Office matters to me: it’s where I pick up the twenty (give or take) problem sets I’m responsible for grading every Friday, and where I bring them back every Monday.
The second reason the Math Office matters is to me is because they have a stapler, and also because they have a bowl of free candy.
The situation, you see, was this. It’s 4:30 PM. I’m sitting in the Building 12 Athena cluster, where I’ve been working to finish up a thermodynamics problem set for the past four hours straight…ever since I finished a linear algebra test that let out at 12:30. I’d gotten about a third of the pset done last night, but studying for that test prevented me from finishing all of it – so now it’s crunch time. The problem set is due at 5 PM, but everything’s going smoothly – I started with the easy problems, but with those out of the way now I’m going back to that tough problem about isothermal titration chemistry and everything is just falling into place, and I box my last answer explaining why the reaction in question is endothermic, and I feel awesome, and it’s 4:55 and I suddenly realize that I have ten pages of thermodynamics ready to turn in to my TA in 4-159 and somehow I need to find a stapler in the next five minutes.
And then I realize…oh, yeah. I’m in Building 4. So I book it to the Math Office, where I find – as always – a stapler just waiting on the front desk for students to use. The receptionist smiles at me as I hastily staple my pieces of gridpaper into something resembling an actual problem set. I smile back as I grab a tootsie roll from the candy bowl – a familiar ritual, which somehow brings me more satisfaction than the candy itself ever could. I round the corner of the hallway and make it to my TA’s room with time to spare.
You see, underneath our calm exterior, each MIT student is quietly dealing with about a hundred different things all clamoring for our attention. Classes, problem sets, reading, office hours, recitations, tests, club meetings, UROP, living group commitments, email, AIM, Facebook, “just hanging out” – sometimes, it feels exactly like a circus act. Except that clowns get it much easier than we do; they just juggle the same brightly-colored, uniform balls day in, day out. But MIT students have to become master jugglers in a circus where each ball is a different color, a different shape, a different weight. Some are feather-light and a breeze to handle. Some are as heavy as lead. And then some feel as though they might as well be on fire.
When you’re used to life in Hell, sometimes a stapler, a piece of candy, and a friendly, no-questions-asked smile are all an MIT student really needs.