Move-in day, 2015: After unpacking my clothes and debunking my bed (with some help from my football-player suitemates), my mom and I decide to get lunch. Upon leaving my dorm, we pass a student sitting by himself on a bench outside of Bingham C. He has long, messy blonde hair, and wears a tie-dyed t-shirt and socks that don’t match. His focus seems impenetrable as he scribbles rapidly in a thick notebook. After a moment, my mom whispers, “I bet he’s some kind of genius,” nodding her head and tapping my shoulder proudly, as if to say this is what Yale’s going to be like.
A couple of weeks pass. I continue to see the mysterious student—always on the bench, always surrounded by half-sharpened pencils and crinkled papers. The consistency of his presence on the bench becomes a little joke among my friends and me, searching, like we all did in those early days of college, for a target on which to focus our nervous cynicism. But the snickers give way to a breathless awe as the seasons change and the wild-haired freshman’s rule over the bench becomes a rebellion against temperature as well as time. Awe soon becomes curiosity, and I begin to wonder: Who is he? What could he be working on while snow cascades around him?
When I muster up the courage to approach my classmate, I notice his notebook is full of what I assume to be conceptual math—complex curves, charts, letters, even the occasional number. Then I ask without so much as stating my name, “What’s the longest you’ve ever spent on one problem?”
I regret the question the second it slips from my lips. But he is cordial and takes a moment to think. “Four, maybe five months,” he responds. Relieved, and sensing a growing rapport, I ask what kind of problem could take so long to solve.
“Some problems are hard,” he says.
I giggle, but he isn’t joking.
“Milo,” he responds, extending a hand for me to shake.
The next time I speak to Milo, he is sitting on his bench underneath a heap of papers covered with mathematical formulas and musical notes. Not much has changed since I bumbled through our introduction some six months earlier. In that time, Milo’s presence on the bench outside Bingham has remained so steadfast that it has been dubbed “Milo’s Bench.”
It’s a brilliant day in February—the sun blinding, the air sharp. Milo wears a red shirt and blue pants. One of his socks is brown, the other white. Milo’s shoes have holes in them, but he tells me that doesn’t bother him. His voice is gravelly and jumps a couple of octaves when he gets excited. Veins of ice creep up the bench’s legs, and Milo picks at them as he speaks.
Harsh winters are nothing new for Milo, who grew up in in northeastern Massachusetts. While attending The Parker Essential School in Devens, Milo quickly finished the math curriculum. “The teachers were just like ‘Yeah, Milo, do whatever you want. We don’t have anything for you,’” he explains, raising his eyebrows. Milo’s precociousness earned him the freedom to explore mathematics more exhaustively: while his classmates were learning geometry, he was writing 20-page papers on “every possible detail you may want to know about trigonometric functions.”
But Milo is much more than a preternaturally gifted mathematician. As his high school English teacher, Sue Massucco said, “Everything Milo did, whether it was acting or playing with math, or writing poetry or building a pipe organ, he did with this joyful gusto for trying and learning and knowing and doing.”
Milo started playing the piano in kindergarten. By senior year, he wanted to know more about how the instrument worked. So, for his senior project, he built a fully functional pipe organ. From scratch—“like from pieces of wood,” Milo clarifies. Adding to the obvious difficulties of such an undertaking was the fact that Milo didn’t know the first thing about woodworking. Every morning, he took a train to a class at a cabinet-making school in Boston. He would return to Parker by the afternoon with all sorts of cuts and callouses, which he presented proudly as battle scars. He also filmed the entire process. And when he posted a time-lapse of the 300-plus hours of work on Youtube, he was offered a job at an organ-manufacturing factory. Milo took the job, then a gap year, and built organs for nine months before matriculating at Yale.
Once he got to Yale, Milo wasted no time diving deep into his favorite subjects of music and mathematics, taking graduate tutorials in rational analysis and classical music composition during his first semester. When he speaks of his interests, his musings reveal a mind that works as elegantly as the proofs it derives: “It’s hard to tell whether a piece of music is good. In math, it’s very easy. But what connects them is that in both, there’s a lot of potential for exploration” he says. One of Milo’s main criticisms of the math department at Yale is that “it seems like this directed field where it’s seen as more valuable to study a proof than to be able to put all the time in necessary to recreate it.” His eyes widen as he affirms, “I feel like math should be practiced as an art, but I often see people practicing it as a science.”
About an hour into our conversation, a woman with magenta hair approaches the bench. Milo waves. She nods at him enthusiastically, exclaiming, “You’re taking visitors now?” Milo hesitates a moment before playing along: “I guess so!” The woman turns out to be Emma Green, TC ’19, who was in Milo’s froco group. When I ask Emma about Milo, she immediately brings up a side of him I’ve yet to see: his wit.
“If we can just get a premise going, the jokes can roll on forever,” Emma says, remembering a riotous dinner in which they spent “a good 30 minutes discussing a scientific study in which we’d coerce the entire world into eating ceramic plates (he and I would, naturally, be the control group).”
I still don’t know what “eating ceramic plates” means, or why Milo and Emma would be the control group. But that isn’t really the point. As Emma explains: “Absurdities like that are so fun, and Milo totally plays along and adds to the absurdities, whereas other people are often just sort of like ‘umm…what?’”
It begins to snow. Inspired by the growing numbness in my legs, I ask Milo what I’ve meant to ask him since the moment we met. “Why,” I stutter, as snow fills my eyes, “do you do everything out here?”
“I just don’t like being inside,” he says. Then, after a pause: “It’s the closest bench to my room.”
“You missed office hours,” Milo says to a friend passing by. “Ugh, I know. Sorry,” she offers. After she leaves, I ask Milo what he’s teaching. “Oh, it’s just a silly class,” he says with a grin. Still curious, I catch up with Milo’s friend, Rachel Kaufman, TC, ’19 to ask her about the “silly class.” Her answer further undermines my impression of Milo as just some math whiz:
“It began one morning when I woke up to find a sheet of paper slid underneath our suite door. It was an announcement that I had been enrolled in an F&ES 999 course, taught by Milo. The class has since included a fill-in-the-blank test and an assignment, in which the instructions were to gather a leaf and write a 7-12 letter essay that described its ‘neobaroque qualities,’” Rachel says.
It has been nearly a year since Milo and I last spoke. While he has migrated to a new bench—one on Rose Walk (the pedestrian path connecting College Street to Cross Campus)—Milo seems no different than the goofy genius I knew last year. His raspy laugh still commands attention as it communicates genuine contentment. He still plays the piano in the air as he speaks. He’s still wearing those same shoes—the ones that, months ago, had started to look like Swiss cheese. “They’ve become less water proof,” Milo admits, having since covered the holes with a thick slab of black duct tape.
As we catch up, trading stories from the summer over grilled cheeses in Trumbull, the form our conversation takes is more casual than it had been last year. Milo tells me about how after a summer of travel, he returned to Yale to “learn everything.” How’s he doing on that front?
“I am about halfway done with this task, if you don’t account for the things that I don’t know about,” he says.
Milo has tried many things so far this year at Yale, succeeding at some, failing at others. With someone who’s as exceptionally talented as Milo, you’d think he’d stick to what he’s so much better at than everybody else—math, piano, building pipe organs, designing zany classes and then teaching them etc. But this isn’t the case. While he wasn’t accepted into any of Yale’s improv groups, this disappointment hasn’t stopped Milo from performing.
Though you won’t see him on stage this semester, you’ll no doubt hear the product of Milo’s latest creative endeavor—joining the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs. For those who don’t know, these are the mysterious individuals who play the bells on the roof of Harkness Tower. And what will Milo be playing on Yale’s carillon? Milo’s isn’t sure, but mentions one of his favorite contemporary artists: Muse, whose music he goes so far as to liken to that of canonical classical composers like Bach and Beethoven.
Furthermore, there’s an element of performance implicit in Milo’s most obvious tendency: working on his bench without getting tired and without getting cold. In fact, Milo is by no means oblivious to the cult-like following his near-biblical presence on the bench has inspired. Just last Christmas, Milo posted a note on his froco’s door imploring everyone to take care of his bench while he was on break.
As Milo puts the finishing touches on his second grilled cheese, I ask what makes him happy. “I like learning things and making things, and I like being outside, too,” Milo says between bites. At first I think Milo is brushing off a lazy question with a sarcastically twee response. But his expression remains serious. He means it. Milo’s answer thus morphs from seeming sardonic to seeming sage, resonating with the kind of certainty that can only be expressed through such an economy of words.
And so Milo’s consistent choice of study spot may be no different than his pared down mode of communication—there’s no intricate explanation for either. For Milo, the bench is simply where he goes to think about math, to listen to music, to eat apples and greet his friends as they come home.
For the rest of us, the bench is where we can—even if just for a little while—share in the joy Milo derives from such modest pleasures. It is where we can appreciate what Ms. Massucco found years ago, when she realized, “what one learns from Milo is to look with wonder at the world.”