MIT HOMECOMING
Gail H. Marcus '68

 

<-364.4 Smoots and one ear. Never forget the ear. The ear says it all. Imagination, humor, an engineer's precision overlaid on an imprecise world. If not for the ear, the paint would have faded long ago. But they thought of the ear. And now, here it is, our own unit, neither British nor metric, to measure my progress toward the Institute.

10 Smoots. The Institute. The very name sounds heavy, important. Like the Rock, the Hill, the Temple Mount. I contemplate the view across the river. The sandstone buildings take on a golden glow in the afternoon sun. Solid, embracing. Just across the river. A world away. A lifetime away. Yet not so long ago or far away.

20 Smoots. Has it really been 25 years? I contemplate my life -- the distance I have come and the distance yet to go. I remember the dreams, dream the memories. Memories that are mine alone. Yet ... memories that have roots in time and place, roots I share with every classmate, with every alum. Intersecting circles of shared experience. Venn diagrams of common hopes and dreams.

How many times did you walk across this bridge and count the Smoots? How many times did you watch the Tacoma Narrows Bridge resonate to destruction? How many times did you rub Francis Amasa Walker's nose? We are from the same time warp. Come, cross the bridge with me. Share my memories -- our memories. Walk the paths we walked. Sing the songs we sang.

30 Smoots. Remember arriving here for the first time? I remember. I was driving with my parents along Storrow Drive, and we were trying, without much success, to get from there to this bridge and across the river. As we drove back and forth, so close and yet so far, I wondered if this was some omen, some warning that I could not, should not approach. But, we found our way there that day, and I have been finding my way back ever since.

40 Smoots. Love that dirty water. Wo wo, Boston you're my home. The dirty Charles sparkles today. The sailboats dance lightly on its glittering surface. The crew shells slide smoothly, silently along. Lovers stroll slowly along both banks. Gulls soar overhead. Bicyclists bicycle, runners run, dogs lope along, squirrels gather nuts.

Clever of them to set reunions in June, when the river beckons and invites, and not in February, when it is gray and bitter. Do they think we can forget? No. We forget nothing. And this river...this river cannot be forgotten. Our lives were lived along its banks. Our days were shaped by its moods. Our memories are tied to the days like this, when we were the eager lovers, the bicyclists, the runners along its banks, and to the wintery, wet, raw days when we so reluctantly made the cold trek across the river.

50 Smoots. I have been coming here more than half my life now, as a girl and an adult, as a student and an alumna. Every time I leave, it lures me back. Every time I return, it binds me ever more firmly. What is it about those buildings that has such power over me? What is it I cannot let go?

60 Smoots. It is, after all, a messy place, jumbled, confusing, disorganized, exhausting. It is a swirling, clashing vortex of ideas and activities, an ongoing experiment in sensory overkill. Getting an education at MIT is like taking a drink from a firehose. It is a bit arrogant and brash sometimes. But it is a place of infinite possibility. It pulsates with energy, it vibrates with excitement. It is stimulating, exhilarating. It is a heady, even intoxicating, atmosphere.

69 Smoots. Ah! My favorite milestone. It breaks the cadence, the regularity of my progression, it diverts my thoughts. Everything is either concave or convex. So whatever you're thinking, it's something with sex. Especially when you are eighteen. Integral of e to the x equals function of u to the n. We have grown up since then, but only a little. I can never resist a smile...

80 Smoots. Remember all-nighters? I remember. There was always someone awake, someone working, someone to talk to, something happening. It was a place where "intense" was not a dirty word. It was a place where I learned to care passionately, whether it was about preparing for a test, completing a research experiment, pursuing a hack, or putting on a party.

90 Smoots. A university paralyzed around science. I came here to study math and physics, but it is the other things I learned that have meant most to me. I learned to care, to think, to dream. To aim high, to work hard, to play just as hard. To be different. To challenge my limits. When to laugh, and when to be serious. Never to quit. How to compute the number of blades of grass in the Great Court, and the number of cars on Mass Ave.

It sounds contradictory. I came to study facts and formulas, and I learned passion. The formulas may be fading, but the passion, I learned well. I still try to taste everything on the table, to drink heartily from the firehose, to peer behind every closed door. How else to explain my valiant -- but somewhat futile -- efforts to learn Japanese after the age of 40? And, once committed, to find I wanted an A in that class. And to get it!

110 Smoots. Remember discovering that the title of our physics text spelled P.A.N.I.C? I remember. Remember Tony French running across the demonstration desk with strobe lights flashing? Remember MIT is a party school? Remember "It should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer,", and it wasn't clear to you at all?

120 Smoots. Remember the emotional roller coaster, the mixed signals? The thrill the first time special relativity made sense, the exhausting sense of never quite being caught up. The ecstacy of a successful experiment, the agony of a low grade. Daydreaming about someday winning a Nobel prize, worrying that you could flunk out next week. You are the best and the brightest. You are the future of this nation. You are culturally illiterate. Techmen can't read. Techmen are nerds.

130 Smoots. Remember the nerds, the Tech tools? I remember. Wouldn't date 'em. The guys with pimply faces and ugly glasses, who wore slide rules on their belts and looked like they slept in their shirts. Not like us, of course. Surprise! Their faces cleared up, they bought nice suits, learned social skills, and gave their slide rules to museums. Today, they are the vanguard of the 21st century, leading high technology around the world. Not bad for the culturally illiterate, huh?

140 Smoots. Remember the Beach Boys in the rain? Ian and Sylvia? UMOC? Voo Doo? Remember Maxwell's equations sweatshirts? The Great Court? 26-100? 10-250? Remember beer blasts? I can't get no satisfaction. Are there songs you still hear on the radio every now and then which transport you right back to a blanket on the floor of the Cage, and just for a moment, you can feel the beat vibrating inside you, smell the spilled beer, see the sweaty bodies writhing on the dance floor? There are such songs for me.

150 Smoots. Do you have a Doc Edgerton memory? I do. I remember trick-or-treating Doc Edgerton with half a dozen coeds to raise money for UNICEF. He perched us all on the sofa, fed us lemonade and cookies, brought out all his scientific toys and sat on the floor demonstrating them and challenging us to guess the scientific principles involved.

Remember the Great Blackout? I remember. Our first thought was that it was an MIT hack run amuck! At McCormick Hall, we gathered in the housemaster's suite and had a spontaneous sing-along. For once, problem sets were forgotten, and music and candlelight worked their spell.

160 Smoots. Remember the coming of age of baby boomers? The Beatles. Simon and Garfunkel. Remember when you weren't going to trust anyone over 30? When 40 was really old? When campuses across the nation began to explode? The Viet Nam war. The social revolution. The Middle East. All the world's problems concentrated and interpreted in the lobby of Building 10. Literature from the pros at one end, from the antis at the other. It was not the easiest of times on campus, but it seemed like the only place to be.

170 Smoots. The future beckons unto thee, and life is full and good. We have travelled far, both physically and metaphorically these last twenty-five years. Our class will be analyzed statistically, and others will report in hard numbers where we stand. But I think I already know.

We're basically a predictable lot. Our mean income is high. We like upscale, high-tech toys. We eat less red meat and more veggies. Collectively, we have gained weight and lost hair, and what we still have is turning gray. At forty-something, our health is generally good, though a few us have suffered ill health or ill fortune (remember standard deviations?). For all of us, the exuberant image of being boomers and yuppies has given way to the more burdened image of the sandwich generation. The baton has been passed, and we are now the responsible ones, hard as that is to believe.

180 Smoots. MIT, PhD, MONEY. The survey will certainly document the fact that a few of us have found real fame or fortune. Though their dreams have lost some grandeur coming true. It will confirm that the rest have not soared as high or as fast as we might have dreamed, but it will not reveal that most of us found riches anyway -- in our families, our friends, our colleagues, our work, our homes, our hobbies. And it will offer no hint whether we still pursue the dreams of our youth, or whether we now have other dreams.

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade. The statistical profile will tell us how many books we have published and how many patents we have obtained, but it will not reveal at all what we have become as human beings. We are, for our quarter century of life since graduation, different people than we were on graduation day, more tempered by time, more weathered by experience. Like the boxer, what hasn't actually destroyed us has made us stronger, but there are no neat ways to measure character.

HALFWAY TO HELL. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. Tech is hell. It was hard work, but was it hell? Maybe, sometimes. But, admit it, that was part of its charm. Part of what you thought made you special. Set you apart from all the unwashed attending college elsewhere. Life was tough in those days, but we liked it that way.

190 Smoots. IHTFP. No, you don't. You don't hate this place. You hated this place at moments. Like you hated your mother for making you eat your vegetables. You hated it the day you flunked an exam for the first time in your life. You hated it the time you couldn't make the apparatus work. You hated the weather. You hated yourself for not catching on more quickly. But you didn't really hate this place. If you hated this place, you wouldn't be reading this. You wouldn't be coming here.

200 Smoots. But we do come back. We are captive in a force field that does not follow the inverse square law. Even far from Cambridge, the school reaches out and ensnares us. We left here with more than our degrees. We left with a way of thinking, an approach to life, a set of standards that identifies us, defines us. We left with friendships which link us firmly to this place. Even if we never set foot here again, this place is forever part of us. But reunions, local meetings, volunteer work, even our donations, keep us part of this place, too. They didn't tell us when they admitted us that the term was life.

210 Smoots. In my own home, MIT's presence is particularly pervasive. Mike and I met here. We owe not only our careers to Tech, we owe our personal lives as well. So everything we do for MIT, we do times two. Some days, MIT floods our mailbox. Some days, MIT takes all our free time. Some days, it seems like we have a menage a troix. Just you and me and the Institute, honey. If we were to split, who would get the Class of '68?

220 Smoots. Arise ye sons of MIT, in loyal brotherhood. It rankled the coeds at times. We were at once insiders and outsiders. But it was part of the challenge. They put the ladies rooms in inconvenient places, but, hey, we could deal with that. We stuck out like sore thumbs in class. Inconvenient if you hadn't done the assignment -- or if you couldn't keep your eyes open, but you could always impress friends at other schools with the male/female ratio. Some of our classmates didn't consider us real girls, but enough of them did.

The bottom line was that MIT, for all its ambivalence about coeds, was one of the few places a young woman could be different without being alone. McCormick Hall was a place of refuge, of safety (although, contrary to popular belief, its walls were not papered in gold leaf!). We saw each other succeed, and that gave us strength. I didn't know how much until I left MIT and was really alone.

230 Smoots. They went and changed the words to the song a few years ago. That was probably the socially correct thing to do, but they have tampered with history. After all, we met the challenge, and that always made me sing the words with special pride.

240 Smoots. Arise and raise your steins on high. They changed that, too. Booze is out now. For me, the song only resonates, only sends chills down my spine, in the original, in all its flawed, sexist, political incorrectness. The song hasn't changed for me. Never will. I'm going to keep singing it my way.

250 Smoots. Once I returned to the campus and found a display in the main hallway with my name on it. They had listed the first woman to earn each degree offered in each department, and in 1971, I had been the first woman to earn a doctorate in nuclear engineering -- probably my greatest claim to fame in life so far. However flimsy the reason, it gave me goosebumps. My name, right there in the main hallway of MIT! Having my name in lights on Broadway or my picture on the cover of Time magazine could not have meant more to me!

260 Smoots. Of course, a year or so later, I returned and searched eagerly for the exhibit, hoping to show it to a friend. But they had taken it down. I was simply part of a changing exhibit, a curatorial exercise. I can't even remember what replaced it. Sic transit gloria mundi.

270 Smoots. I see by your brass rat that you are a Techman. The brass rat. Beaver, engineer of the animal world. Our own clan totem. Our badge. Our not so secret handshake, our not so private password. From Tokyo to Tortola, we have spotted each other, and perfect strangers have become instant colleagues. What year were you there? What course were you in? Did you know so-and-so? Was Prof. X there when you were there?

280 Smoots. Is it any wonder I now have a lifelong love affair with beavers? Did you know that beavers are a hard thing to collect? Did you know what it takes to get an 85-year old Chinese paper cutter to make a beaver? To get a Pueblo Indian potter to sculpt a beaver in clay, or a taciturn New England hunter to carve a beaver of wood? Why didn't MIT choose an owl, or a frog, or a turtle?

290 Smoots. I also have a love affair with Alvar Aalto, whose snaky Baker House must have been far more astonishing in 1947 than it is now. Our dining room is early Aalto. I have a love affair with images of the Great Dome. With Calder, with Nevelson. With Cambridge, with Boston. I read Scientific American and look for the number of authors in each issue with MIT connections. I read Science and look for references to MIT research. I read the newspapers and look for mention of MIT. I go to see every A.R. Gurney play. I take perverse pride in the fact that its tuition remains among the highest in the nation. I still know most of the course numbers. I still call it the 'tute.

300 Smoots. Remember frictionless pucks? Remember neglecting gravity? I remember. Looks like gravity will get its revenge! Remember when you were among the privileged few who had access to computers? When you could impress your family by sending them a letter on computer fanfold paper? When we still used slide rules? Remember getting the shock of your life when you left school and learned that in real life there is no partial credit. You couldn't get 90% anymore just for setting up the problem right. You were actually expected to solve it.

310 Smoots. After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same. They went and changed some things in the last 25 years. They built new buildings, fixed the steps on Mass Ave., redid 10-250. The chairs had gotten harder, they said. They paved the path between Baker and McCormick. They don't fold the diplomas anymore. Charlie the Tech Tailor is no longer there. Neither is the F&T Diner. Or the Brighams factory. Or the Heinz 57 sign. Or Springfield Oval, for that matter. Arthur Fiedler is gone. Legal Seafoods is there, but not our Legal Seafoods. Durgin Park is there, but the waitresses are less surly. And definitely younger.

320 Smoots. Yet, not much has changed, really. A few things may be gone, but the essentials remain. The infinite corridor is still infinite. The cracks in the floors have only deepened. The exposed pipes are still exposed. The classroom desks have not changed. The Necco factory is there. The Great Sail is there. The chapel still looks like a beer can. The dollar bill painted around the old Bursar's office is there. The students still hurry through the corridors once an hour, laden with books, grungy as ever, serious as ever, spirited as ever. Executing a good hack will still earn you sainthood. The essence of the place, the feel of it, is still familiar.

330 Smoots. Remember graduation? I remember. For Mike and me, it was graduation and marriage in two days. Quite a weekend. I remember tearful goodbyes all around. We were scattering to all parts of the country, and thought this was goodby forever! True, some of us have lost touch. But, remarkably, distance has proved the smallest of barriers. The Technology Review column has been, for us, a marvelous way to continue old friendships and make new ones. But the world has grown smaller, too, and I have MIT classmates and friends on the opposite coast, even on other continents, who I see nearly as much as some neighbors down the street.

340 Smoots. Remember seeing all the old fogies in their corny-looking red jackets every June? Have you noticed they're looking a lot better now? I have. Have you decided it would be nice to be back here in another 25 years to wear that jacket?

350 Smoots. Does the lens of time distort or clarify? Does the filter of memory cloud or refine? Was it all really as I recall it now? I'm not sure. I only know that every time I return, everything is at once familiar and new. That in my heart I feel I have never left, yet to my eyes the things I haven't seen in awhile seem intensely, almost painfully, sharp and bright.

360 Smoots. The day before I first left home for MIT, I ate lunch with my Dad at a Chinese restaurant. The fortune in my fortune cookie read, "You are about to embark on a long journey." It has been that.

The journey began the day I crossed this bridge. MIT was the first leg. Growing up, discovering myself, discovering the world. Graduation day, which I had thought was the goal of the journey, was merely a crossroad. Since that day, one person, one experience, has led to another, and another, and another, but the root of it all is always a classmate, a professor, a fellow alum, something I learned or started at MIT.

We have each followed a slightly different road, sometimes diverging, sometimes crossing, sometimes on a highway, sometimes on a rocky path. Most of us have travelled farther than we could have guessed on graduation day, and if we have taken some unexpected turns, they have opened new vistas. Just what paths we will each follow the next quarter century, only time will tell. If the past is prologue, we will travel great distances, yet never stray very far from this spot.

364.4 Smoots and one ear. We gather here once more to be renourished by thy side. There is expectation in returning for a reunion. There is also a little fear. We've changed. The world around us has changed. What will everyone be like? Will they look the same to me? More anguishing thought -- will I look the same to them? Will it be bittersweet to see each other looking older and to find our dreams have changed, or will the years melt away and be irrelevant?

But enough of reveries. I have only to negotiate Mem Drive safely -- no small feat to be sure -- and there will be no more time for quiet reflection. Already, I feel energized, stimulated, excited. A thousand other distractions competed for my time and attention this week, but whatever force it is that drew me here the first time, draws me in again. Tonight shall ever be a memory that will never die, ye sons of MIT. Welcome home!

Published in MIT Class of 1968 Reunion Yearbook, 1993.

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Last updated: January 2006