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Saturday, September 24

Atlas er changed me

Created: September 25, 2022 at 2:10 AM

Last edit: May 16, 2023 at 12:16 AM

H: I find most 16 year olds immature. But N's okay.

Me: You're 18. What a massive difference.

H: 2 years is a lot, no? I wouldn't want to be friends with most 16 year olds. I would walk out the room within 5 minutes if I think you're immature.

Suddenly, I'm painfully aware of how I just turned 17 two months ago.

From where I was sitting on the second floor balcony, I could see a party materialize on the front yard of neighbouring frat houses. The Sunday mid-August sun hung low in the afternoon sky. H leaning forward from the hammock, A on the couch, me cross-legged on the ground. Vertices of an equilateral triangle with side length 2 meters. Each of us had flown from a different country to the Atlas summer program residence, a repurposed sorority house at the edge of the Berekely campus. In the couple of hours since our arrival, we'd played some icebreaker games in big groups, had some brief 2 minute exchanges, vaguely aware of each other's backgrounds. Ex-mormon about to go to MIT who runs a mile in 5:53. Econ kid from a UK private school who travelled to all 7 continents and had a near-death experience at a juice bar.

H turned to me. "I've been talking a lot. What do you do, Laura?"

I could babble about webdev, QC, TOPS Night, and French. Or, I could talk about something I actually enjoy. "Uh… I get an enormous amout of joy from doing math but it's just a hobby. I'm not great at it. I don't do math contests."

I might've wanted to slip away, to use the 1h45 min until opening session to edit some of the footage from the plane ride a few hours ago. Releasing a travel reel on the day of felt more important than talking to these people I'd yet to develop an emotional connection with. But sentences slipped out of their mouths easily, of my mouth easily, and before I knew it we were being called down for opening and I hadn't once pondered questions to ask to keep the conversation going.

A 1 hour conversation with people I'd just met? Not bad. Not bad at all. [At my school, sustained interactions in a group of 3 people meant we made effort to hang out outside school, which probably didn't happen until weeks of friendship. ]

Two days later. Tuesday night. Second floor balcony again, but this time we're on couches around the gas-powered fireplace. In the distance, the stars peak out behind the frat parties. I focus on staring into the blue and orange flames so that the light prevents my eyelids from shutting.

H's going off again about how hot he is. U throws a marker at him. "What the shit!" she squeals, laughing. She's in denial, he retorts, can't admit the truth.

"It was funny the first time you made that joke," comes out of my mouth. The words are abrupt, taste like a grain of salt not yet dissolved. "And the second time. Maybe the third time? But now, it just seems like you only know how to make 1 joke."

He snorts. "Well, y'all are laughing now, so even if you find it annoying my joke achieved its purpose." Self-assured-almost-arrogant H is not bothered by a comment from someone who barely knew him for a few days, just like I expected.

I think elitism is good, I catch H saying. Intellectual elitism, not class elitism, he clarifies. If you're elitist it means that you are elite.

I'm not just justifying that elitism is acceptable, he hammers. I think it's actively good that I want to be friends with smart people and avoid being friends with immature ones.

I think about the world I'm from: classes teaching to the lowest common denominator. Be inclusive! Elitism was as taboo as being pro-life. We'd rather everyone feel comfortable than a couple people have an exhilarating experience while others come out discontented. When classmates talk about applying to the U.S., it's almost always prefaced with "I'll have fun reading rejection letters." Getting 95s on a test then saying saying they're "bad at math". Arrogance, too, was politically incorrect.

But here there were, incarnations in flesh and bone of alien yet electrifying attitudes: I didn't get into Harvard but a guy in my friend group at Eton did, but I'm smarter than him, which is how I know that Harvard admissions does not select for intelligence. I'm better than all but one of the debaters on the British National Team. I think I'm smarter than most people at MIT. I'm hottest guy in this room.

Sometimes, I scroll through my github repos, read the code files line by line as if I was reading a story and think, whoever wrote this react component is a genius. Sometimes I think about the kid who went from barely being able to listen to 3 little pigs in french to holding a 30 min conversation with a native speaker in 4 months and think, wow, I would date her.

If they could look me in the eye and ironically say, "I am smart," if a guy who did not make the nat team calls the nat team debaters shit, then why the fuck was I holding back? If H could say he finds the entire 16-y-o population immature, then why did I wince every time I expressed a non politically-correct opinion?

Saturday afternoon. We were on the third floor balcony. Underneath blankets on cushions on the ground around a short wooden table. Solving the bell curve double integral as A watches over my shoulder. "Laura, you need to stop saying that you're bad at math."

"But it feels kind of arrogant to say that I'm good at math if I don't do contests?"

"Well, math contests aren't the only type of math you can do."

He pauses. And then he adds, "I think you'll enjoy MIT. You should apply."

70% people who tell me that I'm really fucking smart, that my videos are inspiring, that I'm gonna get into Harvard do not believe the words that vibrate off their vocal cords. But this was A. A who thought O seems fun to make fun of when he interviewed him for Atlas. A who isn't afraid to say that he finds dumb people who talk a lot annoying. A who thinks of UPenn as a state school instead of an Ivy.

I think A means it.

I find out H was born in 2003 [instead of 2004 like I'd for some reason assumed]. I guess he thought I was okay for someone 2 years younger, too.

U asking if she should go to her ball. She's leaning on yes. I'll have fun with friends, not worry about who to go with as my date. Then, she's leaning on no. I don't really want to be there, I'll only be going because my friends want me to. She throws her hands up. "Whatever. I don't really care about this ball anyway."

"Nah, you care. If you really didn't care you wouldn't have spent the past like 20 minutes talking about it."

She throws her hands again and fake grudgingly walks out the room.

H chuckles. "Laura, this brutally honset thing is annoying when you do it to me, but I can see why it's useful. I appreciate you for it."

Huh. Since when did I do a "brutally honest thing"? Was he talking about the time I told him to stfu during abortion debate bc no one asked for a long drawn out description of his point? saying his joking-arrogance was annoying? In Toronto, when people talked about being stressed for exams I would hold back from telling them they're uselessly fretting, read Epictetus' handbook and learn to not disturb your own tranquility by getting attached to things out of your control. In, Toronto-

No. H didn't know me in Toronto.

I was in a new city, without any prior identity in people's minds for my actions to fill. SF Laura could not giving a fuck about political correctness. SF Laura could say she got fluent in french in 4 months and directed a 2h40min film long enogh to be a movie and is good at math, without worrying about sounding arrogant (next to H, who could?) SF Laura could do the brutally honest thing.

your elitism was so offensive yet refreshing after I shed my insecurities, I had narrated for my post-Atlas reflection video.

Not gonna lie, I'm still proud of that moment. That line. Nah, you care. If you really didn't care you wouldn't have spent the past like 20 minutes talking about it.

An intuition, an urge, barely a prick an ickiness that presses against my amygdala. A feeling not fully formed until the words escape my lips. saying it felt like watermelon on hot summer day. a scab that's been lodged into your skin for a week coming off. ripping meat with teeth perfectly off a bone leaving no tendon behind. conversations during which you discover your opinions is corn getting dislodged from between your molars.

honesty + confidence was refreshing and i sure as hell don't want to go back. SF laura was coming to toronto.


Made with ♥ by Samson Zhang, Laura Gao and others