Posted on November 18, 2014
Atari Nerd Chronicles: 1982-1983: Computer Lab
Note: I’ve been writing these little stories on the internet for the better part of the last decade. Out of my entire close and extended family, only a very few have taken the time to read them. One of those people was my Uncle Richard. My mom’s brother, he was the only uncle I ever knew. He was in the Navy in WWII, and worked as an engineer in the Silicon Valley almost since it’s inception. He was also a pilot, and the father of 9 kids. Since my mom is not on the internet, every time he read one of my stories that he enjoyed, he would print it out and send it to her so she could read it offline. When I was growing up, my uncle was one of the few people in my life that shared my love of computers and technology. I loved the idea that my uncle was sitting in far away location, reading my stories, and enjoying them enough to actually print them out sand mail them to my family. Uncle Richard died this morning, at 4:30 AM This story, in particular was one of his favorites, so I’m reposting it in his honor today. Thanks Uncle Richard for all your love and support over the years. I was blessed to have known you. I will always believe that you are out there. somewhere, reading my little internet stories about growing up and technology. One day, I promise, you will feature in one of these stories yourself. I’ve already written it in my head, I just need to get it down on paper,
Part I: Mr. Hughes
In the fall of 1982 I started 7th grade at Foster A. Begg Jr. High School in Manhattan Beach California. My classes were Homeroom, Honors English. Pre-Algebra, Honors Science, Honors Social Science, Drama, Spanish 1, and P.E. My Schedule was stacked with very difficult classes, and historically, that would have been perfectly fine. I was a pretty good student all through elementary school, wracking-up good grades and a fistful of dollars my dad would pay for every ‘A’ on my report cards. As 7th grade started though, my outlook on life chnaged. Just 9 months before, at Christmas, my brother and I had received our Atari 2600 VCS. Then, instead of spending our free-time reading or watching baseball on TV, we were playing video games. We played a lot of video games. However, it was not just playing, we also spent a lot of time designing our own games on the graph paper my dad brought home from his job at Hughes Aircraft, and with BASIC language manuals we had borrowed from the Manhattan Heights Library. Where once I had found school to be the most thrilling thing I had ever experienced, the idea of playing and making video games had taken its place.
It was no wonder then, that my first couple months of 7th grade did not go very well. I was doing OK, but the hardest class for me was Spanish. For some reason, while the idea of learning a computer language like BASIC seemed like second-nature, the idea of learning a foreign language simply did not compute. It started off badly, as Mrs Boerman (no joke) told me my Spanish name was ‘Esteban’. I could never spell it right, and always got -1 for spelling it ‘Estebaun’ on every paper I submitted.. Even more difficult for me though, were the every day words. Mrs. Boerman called on kids at random to name something in the room using Spanish instead of English. I was absolutely terrified of her calling on me, but I simply could not commit many of the words to memory. In fact, the only word I memorized was El Reloj which meant “clock”, because I was always staring at the thing in class, begging for it to move a little faster before she called on me.
When our grades came out for the first quarter, I got A’s in every class, except Spanish in which I received a “B-“. It was the worst grade I ever received in any class (up to that point any way). The day after grades were handed out, I sat in my home room almost in tears, trying to figure out what to do. I simply did not like Spanish. There was no way I was going to do any better in the class, and the subject simply did not interest me at all. Mr. Hughes, my homeroom teacher noticed that I looked pretty sad, and asked me to see him before I left for first period. Mr. Hughes was a very quiet man who taught reading. I too stayed quiet, reading at a desk in the back because I was scared of the older kids in the room. He had never asked me to talk to him before, and my stomach fell as the first period bell rang, as I had no idea what he wanted to say to me. Mr. Hughes had a reputation of being “mean”. I’d never seen it, but then I was never on the receiving end of any of his anger either.
“Steve, I noticed you look pretty upset today, what’s up?”, Mr. Hughes asked me as I slung my Wilderness Experience backpack over my shoulders in an attempt to to get out of the room as fast as possible.
“Umm,I err, I…I..I”. I stuttered. I did that a lot in those days. Trying to get the words out of my mouth was sometimes the hardest thing in the world for me.
I tried again.
“Sp..Sp…Sp…Spanish” I finally blurted out, “i…i…i…it’s too hard for me”
He looked at me for a second and then he looked down at the book I was holding, Computers For Kids – Atari, and back up at me and said “you know, Spanish is an elective. You don’t have to take it. Let me find out if there is something else you can do that period”
“Oh…Oh…Oh Kay, great” I said back, and ran out the door to Drama class.
My response masked my complete and utter joy at the idea. I might be able to get out of Spanish! The idea was breathtaking. I spent the rest of the day in joyous daze. I could not wait another minute to hear what Mr. Hughes might have for me to do instead of Spanish class. The next day I nervously entered home room. I was hoping that Mr. Hughes had remembered what he was going to do, but I did not dare ask him. I propped up my Atari book and tried to concentrate on the basic programs inside, but it was very difficult to digest any of it. All I wanted to do was to hear what Mr. Hughes had to say. About 10 minutes before home room ended, Mr. Hughes called me up to his desk. This was it.
“I talked to Mr. Donalou…” he started.
Crap. Mr. Donalou was the Principal, I did not think it would have to that far.
“…he will call your mom call later today. He wants to speak with her.”.
Crap crap. I had to wait the whole day again, and now for a call from the principal. My heart sank.
When I got home, my mom told me that she had indeed been called by the principal, and they had a discussion about Spanish class. She told me that Mrs. Boerman did not want me to leave class, and that there were no others elective classes I could take at that time. I’d have to wait until the end of the trimester, and then I could be a library aid. For now, the only thing I could do was be a teacher’s aid for Mr. Hughes, or continue Spanish. I suppose they thought this would make me stick with Spanish, but they were wrong. I chose teacher’s aid, and wanted to start immediately.
The next day I began my new job working in Mr. Hughes’ class. He taught reading to 6th and 7th graders, and my job was to grade papers and quiz kids on the books they had read. Since we had read the same books the year before, the job was pretty easy for me. The only hard part was talking out loud, which I still feared like nothing else on earth and I found painfully difficult. However, I got to know Mr. Hughes pretty well in the next couple months. He always told me about the books he was reading, and he seemed interested in whatever I was reading myself (usually an Alfred Hitchcock And Three Investigators book, a Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Golden Treasury Of The Civil War, or a computer manual. Far from being the “mean” teacher of his reputation, I found him to be the type of teacher who loved to see kids light-up when they discovered the same things he discovered in the books he taught. The problem was, there were not too many of those at Foster A Begg in those years. I found him coming back to my aid’s desk more and more often to talk about my books and what I thought of the 6th grade material. Over time I got pretty comfortable talking out loud because Mr. Hughes treated me like any other person. My stuttering and fear of speaking were not cured, but our conversations had gone a long way to prove to me that my ideas were worth speaking, and others might like to hear them.
When the first trimester was almost over, Mr. Hughes came to ask me about my plans for the upcoming trimester. I could stay as his aid, or work in the library. He told me he would look into some other possible options, but no matter what, I’d have to choose by the next day.
When I got home from school that day, my mom told me the school secretary had called. She said I needed to choose a new elective: teacher’s aid, a Library aid or… Computer Lab aid.
I was shocked. Computer Lab Aid had never been discussed before. In fact,I had no idea what it was, but it sounded amazing.
My mom called the secretary back and told her that I wanted to be a Computer Lab aid.
It was exciting to think about. Even though I read books about computers, I did not have access to one. My friend down the street had one, but I rarely got to use it now that we were in Junior High and he was still in Elementary School. Having access to computers meant the possibility of programming one, which meant I might be able to some day get some of my game ideas up on the computer screen.
The next day in home room, Mr. Hughes was silent to me again for the first time in weeks. However, I read my Atari Basic book even more feverishly than ever. I had no idea what was in-store for me when I started my job in the computer lab, but I needed to prepare the only way I knew how, so I just kept reading and reading. A few minutes before first period, Mr. Hughes came back to my desk.
“So what are you going to do about your elective?” he asked.
“Umm…I’m going to help out in in the Computer Lab” I replied.
I looked up from my book, and I saw something on Mr. Hughes I had rarely seen before.
He always sported a stern, yet concerned, yet scholarly look. Not mean mind you, just serious, and it rarely formed into a smile.
“Good, I thought you might choose that” he said back to me, and then he turned and went back to his desk.
Part II: Computer Lab
A few days later, day, instead of going to Room 22 to help Mr. Hughes, I slipped down the Room 23 ( next door ), and walked into my future.
Inside this little room were about 10 Apple IIe computers, all humming away running Bank Street Writer. There were about several different women who helped in the Lab, while Mrs. Brown, a math teacher, ran it as the faculty administrator. I handed her my transfer paper, and told her that was supposed to be there.
“Of course you are!”, she said with a wild flair. “This is our lab. We have a class set of Apple IIe computers (one for every 3 kids), and look at this over here, our new Apple Lisa!”
She pointed towards what looked like an IBM PC on a desk separated from all the other computers. One of the adult aids was fiddling with it, trying to get it to work.
“We are still setting it up” she told me, “Now, look over here, we are setting-up for a writing class.”
Mrs. Brown showed me around to all the Apple IIe computers that were running Bank Street Writer.
“Your job today will be to help anyone who needs it when they are writing.”
Crap. I’d have to fake it. I’s never used Bank Street Writer before, and I guess someone had told Mrs Brown that I could help teach it to other kids. Looking around, I spied a laminated card on one of the desks that listed the key combos for doing thinks like saving, loading, bolding, etc. I picked it up and studied it. If I was going to be successful I’d have to learn quickly. I felt my hands sweat a bit around the card. I could not blow this job on the first day.
Soon, the Lab filled with 30 6th graders, all fighting to sit in front of a computer. The lesson that day was to write a few sentences and save them to a 5.25″ floppy disk. I floated around the room with my laminated card, trying to be helpful. Most of the kids were too busy pushing each other out of their chairs to even try the writing program. I did manage to help a couple kids get their work saved, but for the most part it seemed like an unmitigated disaster. After the kids filed out, I was afraid of what Mrs. Brown was going to say to me. Did she think it was my fault that my younger peers were such idiots when it came to computers?
However, Mrs. Brown came back told me that I did great. “It was one of our better classes!” she told me.
The class period was still not over, so I sat at one of the Apple IIe computers and typed a few key presses into Bank Street Writer. Within a couple minutes I had several paragraphs written describing how difficult it is to teach 11 year olds computer skills. When the bell rang, I saved the file to a disk, cleared the screen, and got-up left for my next class.
The following day I walked to the computer lab wondering just what they would have me do. However, when I got there, Mrs. Brown was absent. I asked one of the other ladies, the one who was trying to get the Lisa to work the day before,what I should do. She just looked at me coldly and said something that sounded like: “not mess things up for me.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but it was enough to get me to cocoon-up for the day. I sat down at one of the Apple IIe computers in the back and looked through the disk-box next to it. I filed through the floppy disks until I came to one that looked really intriguing: Sands Of Egypt. I put the disk into drive A: and rebooted the machine. Soon, the hi-res title screen for the game came-up, and I was playing a full-on adventure game on a computer in the middle of the school day. I’d never done anything like it before, but I did not want to stop. No one came back to talk to me that day, so I just kept traveling across the desert near Cairo until the bell rang, then I got-up and left.
For the rest of the week, Computer Lab was mostly the same as day #2. Mrs. Brown was not there, and the other ladies either ignored me, or like the mean one, treated me like I was stealing food from their mouths. At one point the mean one asked me to get a printer set-up on one of the computers. I had never done that before, however, there was chart on the wall that Mrs. Brown had created that explained how to do it, and I got it done quite quickly. This seemed to make the mean lady even meaner. When she wasn’t in the back fiddling with the still dormant Lisa, she complained that I had done everything wrong. This sent me to the back of the room again, where that I spent most of the rest of the week playing Sands Of Egypt. It was OK though, I was so engrossed in the game, I pretty much shut everything else out.
Anyway, within a couple weeks, things started to settle down in the lab and I worked into a routine. When Mrs. Brown returned, I was back to helping out in classes, connecting printers, showing kids the key combos for Bank Street Writer, and avoiding the mean lady. In my spare time I played Sands Of Egypt, Murder On The Orient Express, and a couple other games that were squirreled away on the floppy disks in the back of the room. I slowly proved my worth to Mrs. Brown and some of the other ladies. I became very adept at getting software set-up, and helping in the classes. In my spare time, as well as playing the games, and I started programming in Apple Basic. Not huge programs mind you, but small things like text displays, math calculators, and anything that would provide a nice graphic effect that could be produced in the few minutes a day I had to work on a program.
In home room during that trimester, Mr. Hughes was uncommonly quiet, even for him. We still spoke a bit, but it seemed that now that I was not his aid, I was back to just being another kid in class. I did see him talking to Mrs. Brown a couple times, and once he stuck his head into the computer Lab to see what I was doing. but for the most part he disappeared. I was never quite sure if he was mad at me for abandoning him as his aid so I could play with computers every day. He was so quiet it was hard to tell.
Back in the computer lab, things were starting to settle down. I think the programming work I was doing sent the mean lady over the edge. One day she asked me to come over and look at a program she was loading onto the computers. It was LOGO, a programming language that used graphics instead of text, designed to teach kids computer skills. I hated it. It made no sense to me. I got it to work, but it was obvious that I did not care about, so I failed to learn it. However, since I could not get into it it, the mean lady held it over me for the rest of the year. “BASIC is a dead end” she would say to me, just out of Mrs. Brown’s ear shot, “LOGO is the future.”
Still, Mrs. Brown was impressed with my little programs. She started having me do more and more intricate work, and even told me that next year she wanted me to teach programming to some of the kids. As I continued into the 3rd trimester, the computer lab became my refuge. As long as I avoided the mean lady, I could play in a world on computers for 52 minutes a day. Without Spanish class dragging me down, I did pretty well in most of my other classes too. To stay as an aid you needed at least a B average, and I was pulling that down with no problems. By the end of the year I had the run of the place, and except for the still unusable Lisa, I could perform almost any task asked of me, and still manage to play games and program most of the time.
For all intents and purposes, The Computer Lab had become my favorite place in the world.
Part III: Cold Reset
On the last day of 7th grade, I came to home room with a box of Italian candy. Mr. Hughes wanted us to have a “food of the world” party for the last day of school. We needed to bring food from a country our ancestors had come from. Each of us put the food on our desk, and the other kids came around to sample everything. My Italian candy was not very popular, so I sat most of the time by myself with an almost full box in front of me. In the middle of the period, Mr. Hughes came back to talk to me. We had not spoken very much for months, ever since I stopped being his aid. I had chosen to think Mr. Hughes really did not try to be quiet towards me, that instead, without me helping in his class, there was just not time to talk about anything at length.
“How was Mrs Brown this year?” he asked me.
“Great! I loved it! I think I know what I want to do when I grow-up.”
“What?”, he replied laughing, “teach in the computer lab, or program computers?”
“Hmm. Both I suppose!” I laughed back at him.
“Steve, Next year, I’m going to get my own Apple IIe computer in this class. ”
“Really?”, I replied, genuinely surprised. I never knew that a regular classroom could have it’s own computer.
“Sure!” he replied, with a bit of enthusiasm I had not witnessed since I was his teacher’s aid. “We’ll put it right back there next to the window” he said, pointing towards the back of the room.
“Start thinking of the stuff we can do with it, because it’s going to be great!”
Mr. Hughes looked at me like he meant it and I could tell how much he wanted it to happen.
“Cool.” I said back to him, trying stay calm even though it seemed really exciting.
Underneath it all, I was really happy because it seemed like Mr, Hughes was not mad at me after all. I always suspected that he might have had a hand in getting me the job as Computer Aid. He did seem to know Mrs. Brown pretty well , and now he was getting a computer in his room, so I knew he was interested himself. I left that day with high hopes for the next year and 8th grade.
Over the summer between 7th and 8th grade my brother Jeff and I worked very hard to convince my dad that we needed a computer of our own. We focused on an Atari 800xl, the shiny, sleek new entry to the Atari 8-bit line. We played a lot of video games too, including tons of games on the Vectrex we bought ourselves with money we made from selling a bunch of our Atari 2600 cartridges.
When the time had come to choose my elective for 8th grade, I instantly chose Computer Lab aid. Even though I felt guilty for not choosing Hr. Hughes class room aid again, the Computer Lab was where I really wanted to be. I knew he would understand. Furthermore, with the new computer in our home room class, I could help Mr. Hughes in the period too, and get almost double the computer time I had in 7th grade. Just the thought made me want to skip the summer and just start school right away.
However, when my class schedule arrived in the mail the week before school, I was shocked to see that my home room had been changed to room 3, Mrs Davis. I still had computer lab 3rd period, but I had no idea why I was not in Mr. Hughes’ home room. Had he kicked me out? I had Mrs. Davis for 6th grade English class. She scared me in 6th grade,and the idea of her scared me again. On the first day of school I sheepishly entered her home room, and told her that I used to be in Mr. Hughes’ home room class. Her usual stern demeanor changed for minute, and she softly welcomed me told me where to go sit-down. Mrs. Davis treated me that way for the first few weeks. At the time I never really understood why, but I just went with it. I questioned a couple of the other kids that had been in my home room with Mr. Hughes, but none of hem knew why they were not in his class any more either. In fact most of them were quite happy to be in other rooms. To be honest, Mr. Hughes was not terribly popular teacher at Foster A Begg Junior High. It was probably the reason we got long so well in the first place, but it should have been clear to me why not many people cared about the change.
While home room was confusing, Computer Lab with Mrs Brown started better than the prior year. The mean woman was still there, but I had more free reign to do what I wanted while being an aid. Even better though, a new wrinkle had been added. A Company named Pertech had decided to donate a set of 24 high-end CPM workstations to our school. By the second trimester they would arrive, and it would be our job to explore them and make them work.
Still, I could not help wondering why I was not in Mr. Hughes’ home room. A couple weeks into the school year, I decided to go ask him. Instead of going to room 23 immediately for 3rd period, I decided to visit him in room 22. However, the door was locked. It suddenly occurred to me Mr. Hughes did not kick me out of his home room at all, Mr. Hughes was not working at our school any more. I have no idea why I had not figured that out before, but I just had not even considered the possibility. I asked Mrs. Brown about him, but she only mumbled something I could not hear, and told me that I needed to load LOGO on a couple computers for a class the next period.
A few weeks later, there was an announcement in the daily school bulletin that there would be a memorial service during 3rd period. It said that any student who had known Mr. Hughes could come and say goodbye.
I never made it to the service. I found out later that Mr. Hughes had died of cancer over the summer. The same summer that I had spent dreaming about getting a new Atari Computer for Christmas, he probably had spent dreaming about how to keep on living just one more day.
I was not mad at Mr. Hughes for not telling me he was sick. In fact, I had no idea what to feel about him. I suppose I should have been sad, but I wasn’t. I was just numb. It took about 25 years for me to really understand what he meant to me as teacher. Years later, as I recounted this story in my mind, I realized that Mr. Hughes was the first teacher (and also one of the last) who actually cared about me as an individual as well as a student. He helped me get my start in computers by supporting my interest in them, even though he never got the chance to have one of his own. Actually, in a way, he did get a computer of his own… 24 to be exact. When the Pertech workstations arrived later that year, the only classroom available to house them was Room 22, Mr. Hughes’ old classroom. Instead of one Apple IIe, Mr. Hughes received 24 of the best looking computers I had ever seen. He never got to see them in action, but I like to think he smiled the day they were wheeled into his old class room.
Sometimes, when it’s quiet, and I’m working on some web site, program, or game, my mind slips back to the final day of 7th grade, and my conversation with Mr. Hughes. I remember the look in his eyes when he told me about his computer plans, and what would happen the next year. It’s an image in my mind that I can’t shake, nor do I want to. Often, it occurs to me that those were not real plans at all, but the dreams of a man who knew his time was limited and they could never possibly come true. He must have known he was sick already, and he told me about his computer dreams for a reason. Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Hughes handed me those dreams on that day in room 22, hopefully knowing that I’d keep them safe, that I was one kid who could steward them them into reality. Later that year I did get my first computer of my own and it launched my life as a computer nerd, an Atari Nerd, that still lasts to this day. I like to imagine that the thought of my eventual success in the computer field put another rare smile Mr. Hughes’ face, and that he knew that a simple act as teacher, like maybe helping getting a student into Computer lab as an aid, changed that very kid’s future, and set him on a path to success for the rest of his life.