All through the school, the math teachers vanish suddenly and without explanation. Suddenly, everyone has substitutes for math class. This is obviously unexpected, since the subs have not been given clear instructions of how to fill that two-week space of time. When the teachers come back, we discover that they have all been given some sort of crash course in computers, and we are now going to have computer lab on day X, where X is the day of the week when nobody else was using the computer lab.
My math teacher is an immense woman named Mrs. Grossman. Yes, I’m serious, and yes, she really is gigantic. I’m not trying to liven up the story by going all Wonder Years on you. She is spherical, with thick glasses, a short butch perm, and a mean streak wider than her own shadow. It’s clear she does not care for this new turn in her mandated curriculum, and she teaches us to use computers the same way you might teach someone to slap-fight a cobra. Apparently the computer is a dangerous creature to be approached with the utmost caution, and only by doing (sigh) exactly as we were told can we hope to learn anything about these capricious magic boxes.
The computer room is nothing more than a regular classroom with tables lining the outer walls, which are stacked with Apple computers facing inward so that everyone is elbow-to-elbow. We have a computer for every two students, although a few lucky and / or unpopular kids (like me) get a computer all to themselves.
She speaks at length to us about computers before we are allowed to turn them on. Sitting in front of a computer that is switched off is never very exciting, and to do so while the instructor drones on about pushing a button is enough to bore the dead. Once we get around to powering the things on, she instructs us to not touch anything. Because, you know, those early Apple II’s were notorious for deploying whirling discs of razor-sharp metal on users who pressed the errant button at the wrong moment.
Nevertheless, I press a button out of habit. The machine is starting up, and one of the other machines I use has the user press the spacebar during the startup sequence. That’s not really applicable here, but it’s also not dangerous. At least, it’s not dangerous to the computer. It turns out to be dangerous to me, since the instant I touch the button Mrs. Grossman smacks me in the back of the head. This is not a polite tap to get my attention and bring me into line. This is a full-on open-handed blow to the back of my skull, which nearly bounces my face off the monitor. Once I had returned to my senses, Mrs. Grossman asks coldly, “Didn’t I tell you not to touch anything?”
A dumb nod is the only response I can muster. Sure, I broke a (pointless) ad-hoc rule borne of fear and ignorance, but I’m pretty sure there are other rules out there, more substantial in nature and most likely written down, about not striking students in the head. But I give no argument. My main concern at this point is not crying in front of the other students.
She then laboriously feeds us a program in BASIC, one line at a time. She is not teaching us anything, since there is little in the way of explanation about what all of this is for. For people like me, this is so simple that the lesson is insulting. For people who are new to it, we’re just typing in random symbols. After a good fifteen minutes (there are very long pauses while she waits for everyone to finish typing, and some of these kids have never touched a keyboard before) we manage to get a six-line program into the thing.
This is maddening. It’s like being made to recite my ABCs, only at the rate of a letter every ten seconds. Most kids are bored because the task is meaningless to them. I’m bored because I have my hands on a whole new computer and I can’t experiment with the thing. More to the point, nobody is learning anything.
She goes on some tangent about how important it is to type things exactly as she had written them, and the importance of not confusing the letter “O” and zero when I finally diverge from the lesson and add a rogue FOR loop to my program. She spots my mischief.
“Shamus, did I say to type that?”
“No,” I say flatly.
“Go sit over there,” she says, pointing to the side of the room with no computers.
I’m actually relieved. The lesson was frustrating to the point of madness. I’m sure she is relieved as well: She has managed to get rid of the only person in the room keen on learning to use the computer, and now she can go back to wasting everyone’s time without interruption.
This has a large impact on how I perceive my education. The illusion that teachers are vessels of knowledge is shattered, and I can suddenly see teachers for what they were: People who have a job, who sometimes hate that job, and who are sometimes manifestly unqualified for that job. Mrs. Grossman has no idea what she’s doing and doesn’t even understand the subject matter in her hand. She doesn’t understand how people learn or even what learning looks like. She knows how to hand out worksheets, and that’s the extent of her capabilities. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t even like kids.
Up until now I’ve always assumed I just didn’t fit into this system. Now I realize that the system is sometimes stupid and broken to the point of sabotaging the learning process. This has always been true, but I couldn’t see it until I had more knowledge than the teacher. The other kids in this room are probably all saying to themselves, “Man, I don’t understand any of this. I guess I’m just no good at computers.” Some of them will probably carry this misconception around for years. They will consider computers to be indecipherable and scary, because that’s how Mrs. Grossman presented them.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
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