Monday, August 5, 2019
A (Fictional) History of Writing
For a child, the story is about victory. For future educators, it is about failure.
When I was in 5th grade, our school received its first computer, a TSR-80. When it turned on, it made a rattling noise and the screen filled with garbage. No one knew what to do with it. It was placed in a room, in the library, for student use. The students were given the manuals and the disks, but there was nobody to teach us what to do with it. After a while, the light was turned off and the door was locked.
I was the odd kid at school. PS 95 was a Magnet AND an open school. Children were shipped to the Waterfront from all over the city, to classrooms that had no desks or walls. To stand out as an odd duck in that sort of environment is an accomplishment. And not a good one. I had a poor command of English as I had been brought up speaking Italian until age 5 or 6. By fifth grade, I didn’t so much speak English as nod at the correct times.
I plucked up the courage to beg for the key to the computer room. Thankfully, the librarian lived down the street from me. She was friendly, but more importantly, familiar with my odd communication methods. It was less humiliating to plead with her than other people. A number of adults either ignore or mock me. My parents were called a lot that year.
As an open school, students were instructed for the first and last few minutes of the day. All of the time in between, except for lunch and specials, was open study. Since I couldn’t read or write effectively, it wasn’t particularly hard to disappear into the computer room. I wasn’t going to produce anything anyway and I was not causing trouble, so where was the harm?
I left the light off, locked that door and took a seat. Behind me, light streamed from the window across the floor. It was the first level playing field I had ever seen.
I had seen the machine turn on and display garbage. Everyone saw the same garbage. We all agreed that no one knew what it meant. Except, I knew it had to mean something. So I turned the machine on.
Nothing happened. No rattle, no lights, no garbage.
Something wasn’t right. So I drew up my first program. If it had been in words and not in pictures, it would have looked like this:
1. Turn on monitor.
2. Turn on memory module.
3. Turn on keyboard.
4. Turn on the computer.
5. Screen displays Garbage!
Some of the buttons were hidden and other seemed redundant. The order of operation was key to switching on the machine. Those five instructions, button locations and their correct order took over an hour to implement. I felt drunk with success and returned to my class in IB feeling wonderful.
Soon, I had discovered a book on programming in the library. It had the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover. It was for a completely different computer, for the wrong computer language and licensed quotes from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was a bit baffling, but by comparing it to the computer manuals, I was able to reason out how to make the machine work. After some trial and error, I knew how to boot the computer, load disks and save information. Then I began writing code. I was going to make a game.
It was a Herculean struggle, oddly made easier by the strange Hitchhiker’s quotes interjected into the coding instructions.
I knew I had seen those words someplace before. They were on a record cover, in the audio bins of the library. The record would say the words. Not just the words from the coding book, but other words. A whole story, just like the Star Wars record I had at home. Except better because they made me laugh.
It wasn’t long before I had a record player on a cart, next to the computer as I plugged away at my game. It had seemed like an easy program, but since the book had the wrong language and syntax for the computer I had, it was harder than it looked. Many days, I would leave the room with a pad of graph paper covered in code and the record. The librarian said, “You know, you can keep the record for a week. You don’t need to return it every day.”
Yes, I did. And I would be returning, every day.
One day, I noticed a teacher from the 7th grade poking around the computer room door. She was always mean to me. She was one of the few staff that went out of her way to make me uncomfortable. She would ask questions I couldn’t answer, which ended in with me crying and a call to my parents. I hoped she would ignore me so I could finish my game. I was very afraid she would take the computer away from me.
However, I felt more confident than I ever had in all my life. Mr. Gallagher, my teacher, had called my parents. He brought me to the phone so I could listen in. He said that I was participating. I was talking and reading. It didn’t look like they would need to hold me back.
Not too long after that, the mean teacher, who’s name I might never have known, pounded on the computer room door. She yelled at me, accused me of stealing her cart and the record player. Even through the door, her voice echoed and boomed in the computer room.
The yelling brought every adult within earshot. That was good because I was done and I wanted an audience. I opened the door, returned to the computer to press a button with a flourish. The drive whirred and words popped up on the screen:
“Game time! Pick a number, 1 to 10.”
The record player was forgotten. The fully functional program for writing language was the item for discussion.