Reflections on Pittsburgh’s Last Steel Factory

A therapist I used to see once compared college to being in an open water race. All around you, people are furiously chopping through the water. It’s hard going – you can tell that they, too are spending a lot of effort to travel. You look at them and try to move your arms, your legs. You’ve moved before, you are certain that you can get to where you are going. But everything you do is slow, cumbersome.  You expend all your effort and travel 1/20 of the distance that they do. Going to college with depression is like trying to run in the water while everyone else is trying to swim.

I have a hard time evaluating my Carnegie Mellon experience. My success and failures here are so intimately intertwined that it’s not going to be possible for me to get perspective on them for a long time. CMU has afforded me with endless opportunities, opportunities that put me in an extremely privileged position. It is without peer in my field, and I’m truly, truly lucky that I was able to find my passion here. There are few places in this world filled with as many bright, motivated people as Carnegie Mellon.

This institution pushes us. It beats us down and makes us into something that is hopefully stronger. Yishan Wong once referred to Carnegie Mellon as “Pittsburgh’s last steel factory.” I think he meant it with pride.

I have no pride in having been through the forge. I have only hardwon shame that I couldn’t figure out how unhealthy the forge was for me. Somewhere between the best times of my life, Carnegie Mellon took in a bright, hopeful boy who wanted to help people and spat out a deeply sad young man who can no longer reconcile the differences between his self and his self-image.

As I write this, I’m studying for my last final at Carnegie Mellon. Or rather, I’m writing this while I should be studying. There’s a scene from one of my favorite novels that keeps coming to mind. The central character of the passage, Will Navidson, is desperate to finish his book in a place of total darkness, with only a box of matches for light.

In the end, Navidson is left with one page and one match. For a long time he waits in darkness and cold, postponing this final bit of illumination. At last though, he grips the match by the neck and after locating the friction strip, sparks to life a final ball of light.

First, he reads a few lines by match light and then, as the heat bites his fingertips he applies the flame to the page. Here then is one end: a final act of reading, a final act of consumption. And as the fire rapidly devours the paper, Navidson’s eyes frantically sweep down over the text, keeping just ahead of the necessary immolation, until as he reaches the last few words, flames lick around his hands, ash peels off into the surrounding emptiness, and then as the fire retreats, dimming, its light suddenly spent, the book is gone leaving nothing behind but invisible traces already dismantled in the dark.

– Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

So here I am, postponing my final bit of illumination. My final act of reading, of consumption, trying so desperately to keep ahead of the immolation, one last time. At least Carnegie Mellon can take some grim satisfaction in dismantling my traces when I fly home, head hung low, slag from Pittsburgh’s last steel factory.

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