I hated a lot about the middle school I was transferred into in 7th grade. This is good, because there really was so much to hate, and it was best to get started on that right away. But let’s focus on two things: computers and fear.
The school had a computer lab, like a lot of schools of its type, and in our case the lab was a locked room containing roughly a dozen Apple IIs with green-screen monitors along the walls, some long tables in the middle, and one Apple on a cart in the front that had its own monitor. This room also had a desk, which was a ludicrous addition, taking up valuable space, because this was the kind of school that figured a computer lab was just a classroom with computers in it. It was also devoid of any character; if it had posters on the wall, they were meaningless pseudo-educational crap. Or, they were something a school psychologist believed would prevent the students from stabbing each other. The view out the windows was of the roof of the school, a bunch of heating and cooling elements and the steam coming out of the cafeteria. This was not a fantastic place of computer presentation.
This bland little room was lorded over by a single teacher. I previously used nicknames instead of real names when referring to my teachers, out of some mutated sense of privacy and not giving them reason to sue me. So let’s just go with calling him Mister Slick.
I still remember Mister Slick, like a beating. Imagine circa-1979 Steven Wozniak with 1/100th the computer knowledge, the same grin and beard, and with a dash of sneering superiority… and you’re getting there. He was already Lord High Supreme Master Overlord of the computer lab when I started attending that school, and I want to speculate that he was the one teacher that saw these things coming in and offered to be the go-to guy for maintaining, teaching and working with them. I have grave doubts any of the other teachers wanted anything to do with the silly boxes on the second floor, and that they would bless and praise Mister Slick for taking the problem out of their hands.
His “real” classes were in Mathematics, where he’d cover the usual aspects of taking a bunch of numbers and making other numbers, a subject i’ve always been rather poor in. But he also taught computers, using these Apple IIs, and the combination of comedy and tragedy in these classes still haunts me.
It is a time-worn tradition for a person narrating a story about using computers as a youth to portray themselves as being the best at it and leaving everyone else around them, authority figure or contemporary, in the dust. So I will immediately say that there were at least a dozen people better than me at the school in all matters and subjects. I am not the fucking hero at the top of the heap with his sword held alight. I was probably in the upper percentiles but in the grand scheme of things I was just another 12 year old messed up nerd.
But I did like computers a lot. So that’s something.
The computer at home was an Atari 800 my mom had bought for me for the holidays one year. My computer at my dad’s house was an IBM PC. It was on this Atari 800 and the Commodore PET before that and the IBM PC that I’d been doing computer stuff. Before the Commodore PET came home one day, my dad used to bring home whacky little half-calculator half-computer things that IBM had lying around the research lab. I wasn’t able to solder or unscrew panels, but I could certainly handle my way around a dozen sort-of-operating-systems and do programming to an extent (in BASIC). I could also rip through the source code of other programs and do that very important surgical procedure of replacing all the status messages with profanity. So by the time I was transferred to this horrible middle school, I had about 4 years of computing experience under my belt.
This was, just to give some perspective, a time when you had to get a lecture about not touching the part of the floppy disk that was shiny. A time where you had to be told to keep the disk in the paper envelope that came with it so it wouldn’t get dusty. It was also a time when Mister Slick was offering to the students a special deal of just five dollars a floppy disk if they didn’t have one of their own. Just five dollars! Times a hundred students. Way to go, Mister Slick.
What I remember of my classmates at the time is the fear, that horrible, sickly fear that so many showed around computers. Most didn’t have one at home. Many were truly terrified of them, as one might be of an open flame or a handgun, convinced they were one wrong move away from disaster. Computers weren’t wonderous toys; they were vicious tools they would never master and which would cost them grades because the big Box of Mystery didn’t work in a way that made sense. Their eyes would grow wide when the floppy disk drive churned. “What’s going on?” would be whispered between them as it booted. “Did I break it”, “Is it supposed to do that.” “Please, you use it, I can’t type”. I still hear those voices, if I think back to them.
The thing is, I think a bunch of my classmates were proud of their ignorance. Not knowing something, in a place where knowing things was ostensibly the goal, was a twisted sort of accomplishment, especially if you could cull out a passing grade from it. It’s hard for me to really describe this pervading sense of accomplishment of non-accomplishment, but it was there, and I hated it. Learning was fun to me. To others it would just result in more responsibility, more things to get wrong, more things to not seem cool to your buddies with. Teachers like Mister Slick never seemed to get inside his students’ heads about this stuff, try to help kids rediscover how big and wonderful the gift of learning was. Rote memorization and dull lectures punctuated by surprise call-on questions were the orders of the day. Every day.
Mister Slick didn’t like me, and I didn’t like Mister Slick. He wanted everyone in the class to know nothing about computers, so he could proudly stand at the front of the lab and tell the groups of huddled students what GOSUB was and how to set a variable. He’d put out an assignment, like writing a program to convert temperatures (with the formula in the assignment) and then he’d slowly talk people through it. Unfortunately, his pristine lectures would be interrupted by the tap-tap-tap of my group chowing through a beta version of the assignment. Guess who was typing. Since Apples would beep occasionally, his haughty monologues would be interrupted by one as I did my best to refine the now-working assignment I’d finished in the first 5 minutes of class, ignoring the tapping shoulders of my terrified groupmates who were well and truly convinced I was doing some sort of satanic spells to make things function with this box of mystery. What he wanted was a room of dull sheep. What he got was 22 sheep and one somewhat-sharp sheep. God, did he hate that.
How much did he hate that? I was given a -20 for class participation in my math class grade.
Let’s cover that again. I was given a negative number for the class participation grade, chosen as such because it would drag my final class grade below the “passing” threshold.
Who does that sort of thing to 12-year-olds who are a little too far ahead in the class and a little too unwilling to sit around while the lectures cover subjects and programming skills learned years ago? Well, Mister Slick, apparently.
Ultimately, my parents angrily got the grade raised to 66, to make it so I wouldn’t have to take that class and possibly that grade again. I wasn’t allowed in that parent-teacher conference, but I’m sure it was as civil as could be, Mister Slick explaining in some amazing jumps of logic how a negative grade could actually exist in the educational toolbox, ready to shove into an errant student’s eye. I’m sure he smiled that winning smile of his the whole way, too.
Somewhere in here, I started work on a program called “Applejack”.
“Applejack” sounds like a cool keyword, which is probably why I started using it. Written in Apple’s default BASIC, this program started out with a pretty cool title screen (composed of percent signs and pound signs alternating) and a set of instructions and a cool blinky menu. I was interested in the chrome and the flash, and getting it just right so that it’d be funny and neat. I got to a few dozen lines, optimizing it, trying to get it to run fast and have lots of room for expansion. “WELCOME TO APPLEJACK”, it would say. “WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO?” I tinkered with it, considered how to make it read and write to the disk, make it be able to take instructions to write itself somewhere and do something later, and maybe even check back with me, somehow. I had only a rough idea of what Applejack was about, and when I had time on these computers, I’d intently type this or that, testing, honing, practicing.
It is only now, looking back across a quarter of a century, that I realize what was going on: I wanted to write a computer virus. A virus borne of sadness, of hatred, of a feeling of powerlessness. A program that would listen to what I had to say, and carry out vengeance against the prideful ignorance I saw around me. “I’ll show them, I’ll show them all bwaa haa haa” is not a particularly complicated or insightful action plan, but like a toked-up venture capitalist, a twelve-year-old can sometimes forget the bigger picture in spite of himself.
Luckily for, well.. for everyone involved, really, Applejack stayed the way it was, a few forgotten boards nailed into a tree in back that could have been a treehouse, but ended up as nothing. An especially good outcome since the rough plan was to make the treehouse capable of levelling a city block. As they say in programming, Applejack never got any “teeth”. It was a empty vessel, ready to wreak havoc as soon as I finished writing that pesky “havoc” piece that was missing.
I had so much rage back then. Rage and loss of hope. Most of my classmates, however, had no rage, just fear and lack of perspective. This was 1982. I’ve seen articles in the last decade or so talking about how schools have “changed”, how kids are “different” and new measures need to be implemented to handle this current generation which is more illiterate, more violent, more in need of drug therapy than any before.
I don’t know; I think it’s the same old feelings in a world where communication is now as common as water and air and electricity. Just another resource, another thing you can just yank into your teenage world on demand. I don’t think the kids are different; we can just hear them better than ever before.
I hope someone’s listening.
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