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MIT Technology Review

Homework, in a pandemic

A global health emergency has a way of changing your priorities.

April 13, 2020 - Birmingham, Alabama

Today, while half-listening to a guest lecturer’s voice fade in and out on Zoom over my choppy Wi-Fi, I sat down with my 11-year-old sister to show her how to reduce an improper fraction to its proper form. Frustrated, she asked why she had to do this, and I threw out some half-good reason like “You don’t want to fail the fifth grade.” I wanted to tell her about the importance of a strong foundation in math, to draw out the half-shaded and four-eighths-shaded pizzas to show that they are equivalent, explain that the line in the middle of a fraction just means “divided by” and that division and multiplication are so closely related to each other. But helping her understand that wouldn’t change the fact that her worksheet was due last week. Instead, I just showed her the steps involved and had her repeat them for each problem so she could finish and hand it in. While flipping through the calendar to figure out which of her assignments needs to be done when, I am painfully reminded of the passage of my own time, measured in less discrete units than worksheets. 

Abby with homework and puppies
ABBY HARRIS

It’s been one month since the last on-campus parties. A month since everyone rushed to book last-minute travel plans to somewhere off campus. A month since we all raced to pack up our rooms as Semisonic’s “Closing Time” played in the distance. I was in lab talking with a postdoc about the fate of our frozen cell lines during the imminent Building 68 shutdown while my peers carried Purell dispensers onto Killian. On that Thursday, I went out with friends to Miracle of Science on Mass. Ave. We bet on whether physical commencement exercises would take place, and whether MIT would swap out the guest speaker (the 2020s who’d been disappointed at the prospect of a commencement speaker from the military, with no discernible affiliation to MIT, had no idea how little it would all matter in just a few weeks). We reminded each other of where we were headed after all this (working in New York City, propping up the military-industrial complex in Hartford, grad-schooling in the Bay Area, doing whatever it is that Algorand does in Boston) and laughed at where we ended up and how we got there. That Sunday I said goodbye to Bob the house manager and the security guards before I drove the 18 hours from MIT to Birmingham, Alabama, all of MacGregor House room A111 packed into the back half of a rented minivan.

It’s been two months since I finished up my last set of grad school interviews, and three months since my first set. I remember being overwhelmed by socializing with important strangers, doing my best to balance the optional ask-a-current-student-don’t-worry-we-aren’t-judging-you panels with the mandatory do-these-readings-and-reflect-on-them assignments whose due dates overlapped with my interview dates. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t get into any school and would have to endure the shame of asking for recommendation letters again next cycle; my second-biggest fear was of the inevitable awkwardness of my parents meeting my boyfriend’s parents at commencement when my parents didn’t (and still don’t) know about said boyfriend.

That commencement was supposed to happen a little over a month from now. I would be the first person in my family to earn a college degree, carrying my late grandmother’s name across a temporary stage in front of Lobby 10. If things had gone her way, she would have crossed a similar stage in Auburn, Alabama, about 50 years ago. But the walking-across-the-stage part of commencement can’t happen this spring. A pandemic has robbed us of our pomp and circumstance. I’m going to get my degree in May nonetheless. 

Despite how hard it is to keep my sister focused on worksheets or how many times a puppy bites me, being with my family right now is more important than the Zoom class I missed on Thursday.

In my life on campus, I used to make to-do lists ordered by relative urgency. These lists would make it easier to visualize how much work I had instead of floundering around in busy inactivity. I tried to make a list last week to reorient myself into the MIT mindset and realized that the list had lost its magical ability to show me what my priorities should be. Instead, I made a second list, informed by the way my home maintenance duties (house cleaning, ad hoc homeschooling, meal preparation, mediation of disputes among the family pets) and personal maintenance activities (reading the news for at least an hour each day, exercising to remember what circulating blood feels like, disconnecting from any internet-connected object to look at things that are more than 20 feet away in order to prevent myself from becoming even more nearsighted, attempting once again to convince my parents that the virus is something to be scared of) had shaken out since I came home. Surprisingly to my conscious mind but not to my heart, individual assignments for my classes were close to the bottom of the list. I am the lucky senior who managed to finish all my degree requirements last semester. Emergency Pass/No Record (P/NR) grading and the world’s most understanding professors (one of the many reasons I love the Comparative Media Studies department at MIT) have spared me an impossible choice: self, family, or transcripts? 

Assuming nothing catastrophic happens, in the fall I will start at Berkeley, where I’ll spend the next five or so years effectively sheltered from the economic fallout of the pandemic. In the meantime, I am incredibly busy doing everything but schoolwork. Because regardless of how much time I have to spend washing dishes for my family of seven or how hard it is to keep my sister focused on worksheets or how many times a puppy bites me, being with my family right now is more important than the Zoom class I missed on Thursday. 

I’m still working through some things, like the shame I feel asking for supplemental resources from the “Institvte” and a relapse of major depression right when I thought it was gone for sure. I do not know what the next few months will bring. Nevertheless, I’m finding the dark humor in my horseshoe of an MIT journey, capped at both ends by semesters of P/NR and stressful application cycles. 

I’m weeks from getting my degree, and I’ve never felt more like a freshman than I do now, blind to what the future holds but fighting to finish what needs to get done each day.