Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Our Differences Connect Us

A Minor Bird
I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;

Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song. 
-- Robert Frost

Our Differences Connect Us

The theme for this year is “one thing that is most important.”  If someone had asked me this in my youth, I’m sure I’d have talked about music, my first great passion and my undergraduate major.   I still care a lot about music but today my answer is different.  Two things happened to me in midlife, one large and one small, which permanently changed the way I saw myself and the world around me.
The big thing that happened was my husband and my taking up residency in an exotic and alien land.  I’m not referring to the year we spent overseas when he had a Fulbright grant, although was fun too.  No, I’m referring to the rare opportunity we had to live for an extended period among people who were truly different from us:  the residents of Random Hall.  Now you might think that at least we shared a language and many customs with most Randomites, but in many cases you’d be wrong.  As undergraduates Chris was a poet and I a singer; at Random, we came to live among students whose lives were centered on math, electrical engineering, and physics.  The residents and their new housemasters didn’t always understand each other’s jokes, idioms, or cultural references.  I’ll never really understand the work our students do; but in the years among them I have learned to appreciate the beauty of mathematical concepts, laws of physics, and elegant feats of engineering, even without truly understanding any of the details.  I’ve come to understand that discovery, invention, and innovation are, in a sense, just music different from my own.

The small thing that happened took place before we moved to Random Hall.  In those days we lived in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester.  It was a long commute, especially the last four years when I shared the trip with our son who attended a daycare center in Harvard Square from the time he was about a year old.  Commuting with a toddler who was not especially easy-going was a challenge.  If I was lucky he’d nap, and he usually enjoyed a nice bottle of milk, and if all else failed I would read to him – pretty much anything to keep him from disturbing all our fellow passengers.

One night, something kept me very late at MIT and my husband must have picked Simon up from daycare.  At about 10 PM I was standing alone on the platform at Ashmont Station, waiting for the Mattapan trolley to come.  In 1992 that neighborhood was a little iffy, and I was nervous standing there that night; my heart sank when someone came over to me and said “Excuse me…”  The man who addressed me was tall and dark-skinned, and spoke with a Caribbean accent.  Most of us white middle-class women, when we’re alone late at night in a location of questionable safety, and a tall African-American man comes over and strikes up a conversation, are going to feel some alarm.  We’re also going to feel extremely ashamed of ourselves for feeling alarmed; and in a split second we’re going to be wondering where good street smarts end and plain old racism begins.

“Excuse me,” said the man.  “But aren’t you the woman who sometimes reads to a little boy on this train?”  “Why yes,” I stammered, “I am.”  “I saw the two of you on the train a few months ago, and I will never forget the look on your son’s face as you read to him.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and when I got home I told my wife, ‘I don’t care how tired I am; from now on, I am going to read to our children every single night.’  I have kept that promise, and I promised myself that if I ever saw you again I would tell you, and thank you for changing my life.”  That happened over twenty years ago, and that night at Ashmont Station that man changed my life.  He showed me that the smallest, simplest, most ordinary thing we do may be the thing that changes the world.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof,  the Jews of Eastern Europe (my ancestors) are compared to someone standing on a rooftop, trying to scratch out a simple, pleasant tune without breaking his neck, and relying upon tradition to keep his balance.  In my youth I’d have said that the tune was the thing that most mattered, and indeed it’s the work of youth to define one’s own simple, pleasant tune and to make that tune the most beautiful we can.  What I have learned is that we are all fiddlers up there on that roof together; the problem is that each of us is scratching out a different tune.   I still try to make my life’s music the best it can be, but I’ve learned to treasure the unexpected beauty that happens when my tune mixes with the music made by everyone around me.  And I’ve also learned that the traditions and values that help each of us keep our balance can, if we don’t pay attention, become prejudices that threaten to silence someone else’s song, or cause our neighbors to lose their balance.

So today, I’d say that the important thing is how our differences connect us.  That might sound contradictory but it doesn’t have to be: the unique features that define each of us can also enrich and connect all of us.  This is a connection that takes its strength not just from our big moments and our significant achievements, but also from how we live together and treat one another, every day.


Something big splashed, quietly, in the distance, and the splash echoed into the vastness.  He squinted, but could see nothing.  It was too dark.  And then, from the direction of the splashes, a ghost-light glimmered and the world took form: he was in a cavern, and in front of him, mirror-smooth, was water.

The splashing noises came closer and the light became brighter, and Shadow waited on the shore.  Soon enough a low, flat boat came into sight, a flickering white lantern burning at its raised prow, another reflected in the glassy black water several feet below it.  The boat was being poled by a tall figure, and the splashing noise Shadow had heard was the sound of the pole being lifted and moved as it pushed the craft across the waters of the underground lake. 

The boat’s pilot was tall, and very thin.  He – if it was a he – wore an unadorned white robe, and the pale head that topped it was so utterly inhuman that Shadow was certain that it had to be a mask of some sort: it was a bird’s head, small on a long neck, its beak long and high. 

The boat came close to the shore.  The pilot leaned on its pole.  Its head turned slowly, until it was facing Shadow.  “Hello,” it said, without moving its long beak.  The voice was male, and, like everything else in Shadow’s afterlife so far, familiar.  “Come on board.  You’ll get your feet wet, I’m afraid, but there’s not a thing can be done about that.  These are old boats, and if I come in closer I could rip out the bottom.”

Shadow took off his shoes and stepped out into the water.  It came halfway up his calves, and was, after the initial shock of wetness, surprisingly warm.  He reached the boat, and the pilot put down a hand and pulled him aboard.  The reed boat rocked a little, and water splashed over the low sides of it, and then it steadied.

The pilot poled off away from the shore.  Shadow stood there and watched, his pants legs dripping.

“I know you,” he said to the creature at the prow.
“You do indeed,” said the boatman.  The oil lamp that hung at the front of the boat burned more fitfully, and the smoke from the lamp made Shadow cough.  “You worked for me.”  The voice was fussy and precise.

The smoke stung Shadow’s eyes.  He wiped the tears away with his hand, and, through the smoke, he thought he saw a tall man in a suit, with gold-rimmed spectacles.  The smoke cleared and the boatman was once more a half-human creature with the head of a river bird.

“Mister Ibis?”

“Good to see you,” said the creature, with Mr. Ibis’s voice.  “Do you know what a psychocomp is?”
Shadow thought he knew the word, but it had been a long time.  He shook his head.

“It’s a fancy term for an escort,” said Mr. Ibis.  “We all have so many functions, so many ways of existing.  In my own vision of myself, I am a scholar who lives quietly, and pens his little tales, and dreams about a past that may or may not ever have existed.  And that is true, as far as it goes.  But I am also, in one of my capacities, a psychocomp.  I escort the living to the world of the dead.”

“I thought this was the world of the dead,” said Shadow.

“No. Not per se.  It’s more of a preliminary.”

The boat slipped and slid across the mirror-surface of the underground pool. 

“So I’m dead,” said Shadow.  He was getting used to the idea.  “Or I’m going to be dead.”

“We are on our way to the Hall of the Dead.  I requested that I be the one to come for you.”


“You were a hard worker.  Why not?”

“Because…” Shadow marshaled his thoughts.  “Because I never believed in you.  Because I don’t know much about Egyptian mythology.  Because I didn’t expect this.  What happened to Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates?”

The long-beaked white head shook from side to side, gravely.  “It doesn’t matter that you didn’t believe in us,” said Mr. Ibis.  “We believed in you.”

-- Neil Gaiman, American Gods

~ Nina Davis-Millis, Head, IT and Discovery Services, MIT Libraries~

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

My friend, Rod Spaulding

Rod Spaulding

My friend Rod died last week and his life will be celebrated in Charleston, South Carolina. He came a long way to get to Charleston. We will not be there to celebrate him as we are in the Dominican Republic. Not a bad place to be at any time, but especially a good place for reflection.

Rod was born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1938. That made him two years my elder when we met in Abilene, Texas in 1958 at what was then Abilene Christian College. He played an important part in my education. We sold Bibles together in the summer of 1960 and he encouraged me to buy a new Plymouth Valiant, one of the early compact cars built to be sold in the US.  I had no business, buying a new car, but a friend of his was a dealer and the price was modest.  I drove the car into the ground in 1967 after graduate school at Yale.

More importantly Rod encouraged my relationship with Jan Cothran.  He and Jan sang together in the ACC a cappella chorus and he knew her family. Her father scared him.

In 1960 we sold Bibles in Kansas and North Texas. Both regions gave me new eyes with which to view the world. In Texas near Vernon I discovered the roots of my family and had the experience of being called by my family name when I knocked on the door of a former neighbor to my grandparents, Henry Robert and Minnie Randolph. When someone greets you with “You are a Randolph.” And then takes you to visit the site of the former Randolph home place, only trees marking the spot, it is a formative experience. Rod understood that.

Jan thought of Rod as the older brother she never had and it was with Rod that our lives began to intertwine. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary last May.

Rod became part of a team that established a new church plant on Long Island; New Yorkers did not know Jesus had a southern accent. Time Magazine announced their plan in 1964 with a story headed “The Campbellites are Coming”.  Their team was led by Dwain and Barbara Evans and Rod and Pat Spaulding were stable parts of an evolving effort to broaden the religious landscape of New York. A whole church landed in New York’s unsuspecting suburbs and the experience gave everyone involved a life changing moment. The congregation in West Islip engaged an alien culture with a new take on Christianity. The congregation lives today and played an important part in mediating the impact of Superstorm Sandy on its neighbors.

If the Greatest Generation won World War II, it was a fearless generation that tried to win the peace that followed. They rode the social unrest that marked the 1960s with what ever tools they brought to the struggle.  Rod had an ability to help people think about what we now talk of as core values and he used the church as a redemptive tool and when the tide shifted he developed other skills not far removed from those cultivated in selling Bibles in Kansas and Texas.

Rod didn’t know what he didn’t know when he came to New York, but he learned fast.  After West Islip he led an urban ministry project that grew out of a summer program called Camp Shiloh for a time and then landed with the Memphis Public Schools in 1972. He worked through the difficult days of integration and moved on to Charleston, SC in 1983. He retired from the public school system there in 2005.

We lost contact after the move to Charleston. It is amazing how quickly 40 years can pass. Our paths had gone in different directions, but the values we shared shaped who we became. We were Christian and held that the world could be a better place if the Social Compact actually worked. Rod worked to make things happen in the world of race and class. He knew the human side of the religious world and hoped to see its better inclinations come to fruition. He was often disappointed.

As I said, it is a long way from West Texas to Charleston, but he shaped and touched many lives along the way. Jan and I are grateful that he was our friend. We cannot sing the hymn Fairest Lord Jesus without thinking of Rod: “Son of God and Son of man; thee will I cherish, thee will I honor; thou my soul’s  glory, joy and crown.”

We meant to get to Charleston, but when we contacted Pat she told he was in the last stages of dementia. Son of God and Son of Man could not be more appropriate. Forty years goes too fast. Remember that I told you so.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Coming to Terms with the Death of a Student

Lydia K. '14, Meltdown, October 29, 2012, MIT Admissions Web Site,
I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the
workload. There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long
as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid, and MIT keeps an
overflowing warehouse of proof in the second basement of building 36. There’s stress and there’s
shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes
there’s overwhelming loneliness.
One thing that is most important to me:  Coming to terms with a student death.

I have been a faculty member at MIT since 1971, and in that time there have been a number of student deaths almost certainly related to untreated or undiagnosed clinical depression.  There was one student death in the early 80’s in particular that I felt causally connected to.  The phrase “causally connected” means that I felt that my actions or lack of actions had some bearing on the cause of the death of that student.  It is commonly said that each death of this nature affects approximately ten other people in major ways, and I am one of those ten in this case.   I would like to talk today on how I have tried to come to terms over the last thirty years with my feelings of responsibility for that death.
In the events that have troubled me for so many years, there was a moment in time when I realized that the student was in real trouble.  The student had been in my 8.02 recitation twice, and failed 8.02 each time.  I can remember thinking to myself at that moment in time, as if it were yesterday, that I should find out what was going on with that student.  To my eternal regret, I thought that thought, but did not act on that thought.  I was tenured, but busy, too busy to take the time to make the necessary inquiries, and I felt that it was not my responsibility in any case.  Someone in S^3 was responsible.

I was profoundly shocked when the student died a month or so later.  At the time of the death, I simply could not understand how someone could do what the student had done.  It was a mystery to me.   Although I felt bad at the time, I thought there was something going on that I just could not fathom, and that provided some comfort.  If this had happened mysteriously for reasons beyond my control, then I had no responsibility in it. 

Unfortunately for that illusion, sometime later, in the late eighties, for the first time, I became clinically depressed. Fortunately I responded well to anti-depressant medication and talk therapy.  I do not today struggle with depression, any more than I struggle with getting the flu.  But for a time I was severely depressed.  And for the first time I understood how profoundly painful simply existing can be.  So painful that I could then understand at some level how it was possible that one could see death as preferable to life. 

And that gave me insight that I had not had before about what had led to the death of the student years before.   I could now understand the path that the student had gone down, and it was not a path of choice.  One no more chooses to die of clinical depression that one chooses to die of cancer.  So I concluded that I indeed was responsible to some degree, in that there were things that were in my control about the circumstances surrounding this death, and more importantly, that there were things that still remained extant that I could affect as a faculty member.
In the early 90’s I began lecturing in on-term 8.02, with something like 800 students, with the vague feeling that I could somehow reduce the stress associated with that course.  After three years I stopped doing that because I did not feel that lecture was a particularly good way to teach, and it was very hard to see that I was making or could ever make any real impact on student well-being given the way the course was structured. 
Later, in the early 2000’s, MIT had a lot of resources available to try new ways of teaching, and I got interested in trying the so-called studio format of teaching physics.  One of the many things that recommended that method to me was that institutions that had tried it found that it decreased the failure rate.  In my mind, decreasing the failure rate meant decreasing the stress, and decreasing the stress meant decreasing the chances that the stress would lead to clinical depression, and possibly death.  Although that was not the only reason I got involved in trying to change the way that freshmen physics was taught at MIT, it was one of the reasons. 

I spend six years of my professional life, and a lot of MIT’s resources, to set up the studio format we now use to teach freshmen physics to most of our students.  The failure rate is down and more importantly the students are much more tied into the course, in both their attendance and their interaction with both faculty and other students.  And the learning gains have improved by a factor of two across the board, both in the upper third of the students academically, the middle third, and the lower third.  This is a tide that raises all boats, across the board.  That is the main reason I invested so much of my career in this effort, because I love physics and I want to see others love it as well.  But I also want to see students not be injured by having to take physics.  And I think that I have achieved both goals to some extent, which consoles me in the context of feeling in part responsible for the student death many years earlier.

In recent years I have also been more straightforward in publically addressing the underlying issue that this course redesign was in part aimed at:  reducing stress on our students.  Being more public was motivated by an article in the Tech by Grace Taylor ’12 in 2012 that was about her depression and how she dealt with it.  I was simply blown away by her article.  I still remember sitting in the Student Center reading the article on the day it came out, and just being amazed about how brave she was to do what she was doing. 

A bit later I was approached by Betsy Riley ’14, Chair of the Undergraduate Association Student Support Committee, about writing a similar article about my own experience with clinical depression for the Tech.  I have always been very open about having been clinically depressed, on a personal level, which is why Betsy knew to approach me, but this was very different.  This was on a very public level, and there is a lot of stigma attached to having been clinically depressed.  I would never have done this without Grace’s example and Betsy’s request.
In retrospect, I have found that my publically claiming clinical depression as my own has done a world of good.  It serves to normalize the experience, in that it makes it more acceptable for a student to admit that they may be depressed, and seek help for that depression, if they have examples in front of them that say that is ok to do that.  One of the anonymous comments in the Tech on the article I wrote about my own experience with depression was the following: 

Thank you. I believe this is one of the most important things that can happen on this campus around mental health - letting people know that they're not alone, and that they are not somehow permanently broken. Thank you.

So this is how I have tried to come to terms with the impact of the death of a student almost 30 years ago now.  In large part I feel I have made amends.  But it has been a long process that is still not over, and never will be. 

Grace Taylor ‘12, MENS ET TENEBRAE: It’s not you, it’s a disease, The Tech, Tuesday April 10, 2012.
My first few weeks on Prozac were like a prolonged version of that scene in the 2002 Spiderman movie
where Tobey Maguire wakes up and, instead of being a skinny, weak nerd, he’s buff and can fly through
the skyscraper canopy of Manhattan. For the first time ever, I felt like life was a pretty good time. The
pervasive feelings of sadness, anxiety, and fear that had plagued my life subsided almost completely.
Besides the actual relief of my symptoms, I felt incredibly relieved by the fact that my symptoms could
be relieved. It’s not me. It’s a disease. It’s treatable. Feeling horrible is not an inherent quality of my

Professor John Belcher