I am now done with elementary school. Time for Junior High.
Because a great many readers may not be familiar with the American school system, allow me to sum up: Children begin school at age five, in Kindergarten. After that are grades one through six. This stage is referred to as “elementary school”. After that are grades seven and eight, which are “junior high”, followed by grades nine through twelve, which is “high school”. There are usually many small elementary schools that all lead into a common high school.
When Mom takes me shopping for the new school year, I get “normal” clothes. No more polyester pants, no more green socks. It’s at this point that I finally realize why I insisted on wearing those things. I suddenly see that I didn’t want to acquiesce to the bullies and dress like everyone else. Now I’m going to be going to larger school with an all-new group of kids, so… I guess I’ve made my point? Sure, it was stupid and stubborn and nobody understood or cared, but it still feels like some sort of victory for me. Somehow.
I get a paper route over the summer, and use the money to buy a computer. This is 1984, long before the home computer market settled down around the Microsoft vs. Apple field of battle. There are a lot of different manufacturers, each with their own proprietary hardware and software. Right now the choice for home users is between Commodore, Amiga, Texas Instruments, Apple, Tandy, and probably a half dozen other players I’ve long since forgotten. Most of these machines retail for hundreds of dollars, and it would take me a year of constant saving to get that kind of cash together. However, I find a machine from Tandy called the MC-10 that is available for about fifty bucks. It’s a display model of a line they’re discontinuing. The hardware is lacking, the keyboard is criminally small even for the hands of a child, its built-in support for the BASIC programming language is clunky, and it is without a doubt the runt of the litter when it comes to home computers. But it’s affordable, and that’s what matters.
I get it home and hook it up to the little black-and-white television in my bedroom. It’s perched on my nightstand, and I kneel on the floor to use it. I spend a good bit of the summer with the texture of the carpet imprinted into my legs from sitting there for so long. More importantly: I’m off and running. I spent my childhood dreaming about this and trying to figure out how to make this happen. Now that the day has come, I throw myself into becoming a programmer.
The only time I stop programming is when I visit David. Our friendship grows, and having him as a friend makes the new school less frightening. We have no classes in common (and in our six-year run of grades seven through twelve, we will never share a single class) but having him around is still crucial. He fills much the same role for me that my younger brother Patrick has always performed: David meets people and makes friends, and then eases me into the group. I’m still years behind the other kids socially, although now I have the self-control to keep quiet and observe without making a fool of myself. Still, I’d never meet anyone if I didn’t have David brokering friends for me.
On the weekends we play two-man baseball. It’s a sport, but we don’t really play in a competitive manner. We each draw up our own roster of imaginary players, and assign them various strengths and weaknesses. We devise stories for them. “This one is a washed-up all-star,” and, “This guy always chokes on important plays.” We give them amusing names and write down all of their stats before we set foot outside. Our goal is not not win or lose, but to simply enact the game according to the cast we’ve created. We don’t know it, but we’ve basically invented some sort of multi-avatar stats-based sports LARPing. (Actually, the “we” here is misplaced. The game was entirely David’s invention.)
“WHY DON’T YOU GUYS JUST GO OUT AND PLAY?” exclaims David’s older sister in exasperation. She’s been listening to us with increasing levels of irritation and bewilderment for almost half an hour now. She’s sitting at the kitchen table with us trying to do her homework, and our incomprehensible game has finally driven her over the edge.
David and I look at each other and laugh. There is simply no way to really explain this game to her.
|On the left is Patrick, the embodiment of the photo-bomb, made flesh and set loose upon the world to confuse and frustrate photographers for all time. That’s me on the right.|
There is a block of un-allotted time at the start and end of the school day where kids have nothing to do but wait for school to start or their bus to arrive. Most kids hang out in the schoolyard or in the cafeteria. It’s loud and rough, and this is where a lot of the fights and bullying take place. David lets me in on a secret: You can also spend this time in the library. Almost nobody knows about this. The place is empty, quiet, and filled with books. If not for David I’d have spent every morning sitting alone in the zoo, but instead I spend them working my way through Asimov and Bradbury.
We have a lot of projects going, most of which were instigated or run by David. We play a stock market game. Every morning David brings in the market listings for a couple of dozen fictitious (and humorous) companies. Tech companies. Manufacturing. Finance. He also occasionally writes up news stories to go with the listings. Smart players are the ones who watch the news, read between the lines, and then invest wisely. Once you get enough money, it’s possible to buy a controlling interest in one of the smaller companies, allowing you to make decisions about how it behaves. Players do this and rename or alter the trajectory of the enterprises under their control. In this way, we all participate in this game that blends investing with storytelling. David is above corruption, but not beyond the reach of group pressure, so the market performs ludicrously well.
The other thing we have going is Video Magazine. (There was once a real magazine called “Video”, but we didn’t know that when we named our effort.) It’s a monthly magazine that we produce by hand, on loose-leaf paper, for whoever will sit still and read the thing. Affordable word processors and inkjet printers are decades away, so we publish in pen. By a fortunate coincidence, each member of our four-man staff happens to own (or have access to) a different brand of personal computer. Each month we write a program that demonstrates some idea or trick, and write a little article about it. We each choose the program and subject matter on our own, and we turn in our code and prose to David near the end of the month. He writes the entire thing out in pen, doing the editing and layout all by himself. If we want to publish more than one print, he has to make the subsequent copies by hand. (Sometimes he splurges and uses a photocopier.)
There are concerns from all of my teachers that I am not doing my homework. My grades are bad. I am threatened with detention if I don’t begin doing my assignments. It’s unfortunate, but between programming, discovering computer architecture, writing my columns, reading sci-fi classics, and maintaining an imaginary portfolio and company, I just don’t have time to do my homework.
At this rate, I’ll never learn anything in school.
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