The Haves and the Have-nots

On Sunday, February 17th, I remember the exact moment I stopped functioning. At dinner with two of my friends, I pulled out my small Dell PC to finish some studying. The friend next to me pulled out her less-than-a-year-old Mac as well.  It was six thirty-two pm when I scrolled to refresh my Federalist Papers e-reserve when I realized I couldn’t. I clicked again, finding the screen still frozen. I glanced at my friend’s screen—a side-by-side Shakespeare to Sparknotes window popped up for Richard III.

Over the next few hours, I tried every trouble-shoot I could—trying to connect to Town wifi, using my iPod Touch, asking my floor-mates if they were having problems, trying to find my reading at Frost library—but nothing solved my problem. Neither of my devices were even displaying an Amherst College wi-fi connection, but my friends, who all had Macintoshes that were less than two-years-old were typing away on Youtube, Facebook, and tumblr. I went to bed that night, head empty of studies and unprepared for classes.

In class, there were similar problems. Students who could afford to print out the reading (a whopping seventy-eight pages) sat smugly as laptop carriers tried and failed to connect. The pattern was further emphasized–no PC could connect and only two of the six Mac owners present had success. Frustrated with the lack of means, the professor ended class twenty minutes earlier and promised to get a better printable version up on Moodle.

Immediately after class, I headed to Seeley Mudd, prepared to ask for help. My baby computer, a Christmas gift from 2011, was tucked under my arm. But first a trip to one of the empty computers to check my email. A message from John Manly confirmed my worst-case scenario and I put my laptop away. It was an outage, yes, but not campus-wide.

The Amherst College wireless network is experiencing a serious outage. In general, only some computers and devices (such as some newer Macs that connect over the 5 GHz band) can see and connect to Amherst, Amherst Secure, and Eduroam, the three network IDs that constitute the Amherst wireless network.

“Newer.” That was the word that got me. It was just another reminder of what I didn’t have, a reminder of I couldn’t afford, a reminder of how I wasn’t exactly good enough.

It struck me that even with being in the top 3% of my high school class and gaining admittance into a top school, I was still notgood enough. No diploma or degree would let me forget it. Other people forget. As a matter of fact, we all try very hard to forget just how unbalanced the student body is.

We take the same courses, play on the same sports teams, and sleep in the same dorms. Amherst College boasts how large our endowment fund is, and the diversity outreach extended for Open Houses and such displays this, but…

There’s always a “but.” Always a “but” or a sigh or forced smile when your classmate declines to eat out because they can’t afford to, when your dorm-mate hesitates to donate money for your fundraiser, when your teammate does laundry so often because they can’t afford new clothes yet. We try so hard to ignore the differences, but they’re always there.

The service outage was a particularly painful reminder because it was an accident. It couldn’t be avoided as easily as shaking off a Bueno y Sano invitation. The proof was plain in Monday classes—who had their laptops open and who didn’t, who had the reading done and who didn’t. In a larger school, with the usual free campus-wide printing, perhaps it wouldn’t have been as noticeable. But in a tiny liberal arts school with only two free printers (one with limited operating hours and the other with constant malfunctions), the victory is given to those with deep pockets, pockets of substantial AC Dollars or Best Buy ink cartridges.

The outage was not planned, not malicious in nature yet it affected in a tumultuous strike of a chord. The sense of inadequacy lingered long after the outage resolution. And the fear hovers in the back of the mind in the dismay that such an accidental reminder could happen again.