Bigger on the inside
On the last day of sixth grade, my teacher sat us all down and gave his end of the year speech. “I hope the best for all of you,” and “Seeing you grow over the span of a year has been amazing.” Then, he told us the perfectly cliche quote:
“Dance like nobody's watching; love like you've never been hurt. Sing like nobody's listening; live like it's heaven on earth.”
This felt like my own Mr. Feeny moment, my own “Believe in yourself. Dream, try. Do good.” Except, for years I had an uncommon interpretation of this quote. In my mind, I heard: be confident, because everybody’s watching.
In high school, I started to feel comfortable taking up space for myself. I didn’t want to feel so small, and I was confident enough to make it happen. I became known at a local coffee shop; I got a job as a math tutor; I talked, and listened, and talked, and listened to anyone who would give me advice. “Why’d you decide to work here?” “Can I audit your class?” “What’s your name?” My world slowly expanded around me. If everyone is watching, you better believe I am going to be seen.
Then, I got into MIT.
And everyone was watching.
“When I was on the train from Liverpool to Cambridge to become a student, it occurred to me that no one at Cambridge knew I was painfully shy, so I could become an extrovert instead of an introvert.” John Conway.
The first week of college, after struggling through a pset, I went to office hours. The problem I asked about was named after a well-known German mathematician I had never heard of. When I tried to say his name, the syllables fell out of my mouth to form a weird amalgamation of sound. And everyone laughed. Or at least, that’s what it felt like. I was a bit embarrassed, but almost instantaneously I embraced this. I became the pset partner who wasn’t afraid of asking the dumb questions.
I’ve been trying to take up space at MIT. On the fourth floor of Building 2, there’s this little common space of tables and chalkboards where I just sit and work. Sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few hours. I move one of the tables to be closer to an outlet, and I neatly write a to-do list on the board. And I get to work. I wave to students and professors walking by, and sip away at a Hayden coffee. I have been feeling so much more comfortable existing in this past year.
So why have I been feeling so large? Specifically in classrooms. One moment I’m just taking notes, and the next I feel like a giant. It started last semester (albeit, the first semester I had on campus) in 18.101.
There were at *most* 10 students who would regularly attend lectures. And yet, I was constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t blocking someone’s view.
Part of me chalks this up to internalized transphobia.
I found it difficult to do anything last spring. Between classes being online and not knowing many people on campus, I hardly ever left my room. But, on the few occasions when I would venture outside of the halls of McCormick, I would explore. I learned the building numbers of main campus, and I wandered around the tunnels. Every hallway I walked down, and every classroom I could enter was filled with wonder and excitement.
On one such exploring day, I took two pieces of fresh white Hagoromo chalk, went to 4-159, and wrote “Dr. Paige Bright.”
And I thought to myself: one day, this will be true.
I like creating moments like this. Moments that, one day, will create a perfect little movie montage that overlooks all the pain and suffering I went through to get to where I am. They make me feel less small. Even if I don’t know exactly where I am headed in the expanse of the cosmos, I would like to think that moments like this get me there. The moments I stumble across, however, are even more impactful — like the first time I walked down the hallway between Building 4 and Building 2.
In this hallway, there is a Wall of people in the math department: Professors, Academic Staff, and Graduate students. And just like when I wrote my name on the board, I had another thought that is going to stick with me: one day, I will be on this Wall. This was followed by the not so pleasant thought: “If I were on this Wall, I’d be taking away a spot for someone else.”
For this smallest fraction of a second, I saw the Wall and thought “there are so few people here who aren’t men. Why should I be among them?” As if being transgender makes me less of a woman.
Of course, this isn’t what I believe, and I want there to be more transgender representation in education. But for this smallest moment, some cosmic force made me feel like I shouldn’t get to take up this space. And I felt so small.
Promptly after telling us to dance like no one's watching, my teacher played the scene from Napoleon Dynamite in which the titular character dances in front of a huge auditorium. I sat there, letting the irony sink in. Everyone was watching. Everyone could see him. At its core, the quote acknowledges the fact that people will watch: so how would you like to be perceived?
I want to be confident, I want to be more than a speck in the universe. In pursuing this, I have taken up more space. And I like this; I like walking around, seeing people I know, and feeling confident. But with this comes the duality of sometimes feeling unbearably large, and occasionally feeling dismissively small.
Nonetheless, if everyone’s watching, I am going to be seen.
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