Shattering the Dream

This story begins in the 6th grade. 

By this time, I’m just a guy who loves his video games. I had a PS1 and played that thing obsessively, opting for RPGs and the occasional platformer (at the time, this was the Spyro trilogy). I was in a private school, and it was one that let students pursue what they wanted to pursue, be that traditional education, or something more creative. Things happened, and for 7th grade, I was tossed into a public school, my strong love of video games (with great narratives!) coming along for the ride. Being a video game nerd served as a nice jumping off point for what was to come.

This was also around the time where I got my first computer–a Macintosh LC. It was something a friend gave to me, and they in turn had acquired it from a school just dumping off those old machines to make way for newer ones. This sort of laid the groundwork for what I am today: It gave me a neat computer to start playing around with and messing with. 

Until one day, the thing just decided to give up on me. I turned it on to play around with Kid Pix, and rather than getting the nice Welcome to Macintosh screen, I was met with the image of a floppy disk with a “?”. Somehow, the OS got hosed. I had no idea what to do, so I asked the friend who gave me the LC. While she had no idea what to do, she knew someone who did, and that’s how I met the person who would absolutely launch me into the world of dabbling with computers.

Said person immediately knew what was wrong, reinstalled Mac OS 7 onto my venerable old LC, showed me the ropes, and handed me a copy of Macs for Dummies. I read that book front to back and all over again multiple times. Yep, I was hooked. This whole thing absolutely fascinated me.

It got me to the point where I wanted to really get into computer science in middle school, but as we were already midway into the school year, the best I could do was try to drop into the lab at lunch. The person overseeing the lab just…wasn’t interested. Almost like she didn’t care, she just wanted to be done with the whole thing so she could retire and leave. (Which was the case!) I was slightly discouraged, but continued pursuing things in the background with the friends who were helping me along, also bringing me goodies from the computer recycler they went to every weekend (and even taking me along a few times).

My lucky break came in the 8th grade. The old CompSci teacher left, and in came a professor who worked at UC Berkeley. I introduced myself to him, and we hit it off almost immediately, and I became his assistant and also took one of his CompSci classes. I was in there every spare minute I had, helping manage the lab (and even standing in for the district IT person as the poor guy was overworked and underpaid).

As much as I would have loved to stay there forever, sadly, my time had to come to an end: It was my final year of middle school, and I had to leave for the brave new world of high school. In the final week of middle school, the professor handed me a copy of Networking for Dummies as it had come up in our conversations that I was very weak at networking, and he wanted to help me along on that part. He wrote in the cover a nice message: “I hope to be working for someone like you someday.”

Not only that, he got me an award of recognition for all the help I gave him in managing the lab/standing in for the district IT guy when he couldn’t be around.

To say I was riding high that summer is an understatement. I was excited for where this path would go.

Unfortunately, high school would prove to be the thing that absolutely broke me.

The Downfall

Some weeks before starting school, there was an orientation thing for new students to learn the way the campus was laid out, and get our schedules for the new year. When they cut us loose to just wander the campus, my objective was to find the computer lab. I just had to see it.

Now, the way the high school was laid out there were actually multiple labs, two at the time we were there, with a third being constructed for multimedia/video production/digital photo purposes that year. As we were peeking into one of the labs, the guy who was the school’s IT person and systems management teacher overheard us, and introduced himself.

We quickly took a liking to him. He seemed really cool, and he said he’d be happy to guide me along this path that I wanted to walk. Unfortunately, there was a small problem: Systems classes weren’t available to anyone under the 11th grade, so I’d have to wait a whole two years to be able to continue this in official capacity.

I still got to play with computers in my downtime though, and I picked up some valuable skills along the way taking his classes (soldering being the major one). It wasn’t until the 11th grade that I began realizing that, well, this was going to get bad. I figured I just needed to make it to 11th grade to take systems and I’d be right back on track again! (Though I kept on dabbling around with computers in the background.)

Rather, systems served as a huge reality check to my ambitions.

This teacher moonlit as a college professor teaching career prep, and this never really came out until systems because at the time? Being in IT was the next big thing. Tech was taking off at a blistering pace and new talent was needed more than ever.

The two takeaways from my two years of being able to actually take systems was:

1. You don’t know shit. Even if you think you do, you don’t.

2. If it won’t make you money or appease corporate America, it is irrelevant to your studies.

1 didn’t bother me as much. No one knows everything and there’s always room to learn. 2 is what absolutely killed my ambition. At the time, I loved dabbling in all sorts of tech with an affinity for old Apple machines. I eventually wanted to work on Apple machines both new and old, but that was verboten: Corporate America uses Microsoft products, therefore you will be getting Microsoft (and eventually Cisco) certifications. Anything else is wasted time and effort.

I remember one of our exercises was to work on making a website. I was an avid Firefox user at the time, and was totally into making things standards compliant (unlike Internet Explorer 6). We were split into teams, and once I made my desires known, I was pulled off the team I was on because again, corporate America uses Microsoft products! That means Frontpage or no page, and Firefox is absolutely verboten. I was banished off to something completely unrelated, almost as punishment because I didn’t want to conform to Microsoft’s bullshit.

There was a lot of clashing in that class, because I was mostly at war with myself: This couldn’t be what I’ve been striving for, could it? 

I was beginning to think that I had made the wrong choice. I loved messing with computers. But now I was second guessing myself super hard, wondering if everything I had done to get here was for nothing. Because the messaging was clear: No fun allowed. You’re in this to make money and conform to corporate America’s whims and NOTHING else. If you don’t want to make money, get the hell out of the kitchen.

I persisted, despite the voices in my head screaming at me that maybe I was on the wrong path. I had planned to take Systems II next year, but, as luck would have it, the district went bloodbath mode on everything that year, killing classes for disabled folks (hi) and killing a ton of electives, Systems I/II being among them. 

That didn’t stop my teacher though! He just instructed me to take one of his unrelated classes and he’d sequester me off from everyone else and I’d continue my studies.

This presented some problems though: Because the rest of the class and I are on two completely different tracks here, he couldn’t pay as much attention to my side of things as he could, and this proved to be very, very detrimental to me, as I was handed a book on Cisco routers and had to teach myself through most of it. Which presented a problem born of that problem: He was dead set on teaching me how to work Cisco routers and advanced networking. Mind you, I never learned basic networking and was just tossed right into this, and I don’t learn well from just reading a book.

In fact, my final was to set up two PCs joined up to each other with two Cisco routers, and they had to talk to each other over a simulated wide-area network. And most of this I had to learn by myself with little help.

The other main problem here was that the messages were completely mixed: Some days I’d just come in, go to my corner of the classroom (it was pretty big) and crank away at getting these Cisco routers going. Other days I’d go to do the same thing and I’d get yelled at for not “joining the class” despite being told I don’t have to. I’d have to pull up a seat and get lectured on something completely different.

Truth be told, as hard as it was to learn, I began to enjoy the days where I was completely ignored and could mostly work in peace. There was some sort of calm to just listening to my iPod, sitting in front of a terminal trying to get these routers configured.

Midway through this, I got a MacBook Pro that was intended to carry me through the final parts of high school and well into college. It was a very nice thing to have because it actually made interfacing with the routers easier. The OS X terminal just jived with the routers much much better than kicking HyperTerminal a million times to get it to connect.

Initially, this was fine, but one day, it suddenly wasn’t: I was berated for using a Mac, and was once again told that corporate America doesn’t use Macs, and I wasn’t to use my Mac for this ever again, it all has to be done from Windows. Of course, me being the cheeky jerk I am just installed Windows XP onto my MacBook and kept on keepin’ on, but he wasn’t a fan (and called my parents to have my MacBook confiscated even though I used it for other classes. That was fun.)

In fact, I was getting pinched on two ends because of this: I got tossed into regular classes due to budget cuts, and my MacBook was how I kept up, as I was allowed to use it for taking notes in class when my handwriting couldn’t keep up, and I was also allowed to write papers with it. But my grades kept falling nonetheless, and all my tech at home suddenly became bargaining chips to get me to improve my grades. It didn’t work and the death spiral kept accelerating.

I did eventually get my MacBook back for small stints, and it was enough to salvage my grades in a few classes, but through most of the year it (and other computers I built) became carrots to dangle in front of me to get me to improve my grades.

Toward the end of the year, and one of the things that finally made me say fuck this shit, was when I was pulled off my final to solve a driver issue on one of the multimedia labs’ computers. It needed an Ethernet driver to be able to see the school network (and allow students to log in properly to get to their network stores). No one had the driver handy, so I had to go download it. This was the last period of the day, and the photo/multimedia class next door was hammering the network hard, so downloading it over the school network proved to be problematic. My MacBook, however, was able to see a nearby public Wi-Fi network, and downloading the driver over that connection would have this done in 10 minutes as that network wasn’t getting hammered.

Of course, teach was wondering why I was doing this. Wondering why I’d download something over Wi-Fi when I could just download it over hardwire Ethernet.

“The school has a gigabit backbone, it’s going to be faster than your Wi-Fi connection.”

“That it would be, but the problem is the internet connection the school is using is currently congested, so I’d be here for hours waiting for the congestion to ease.”

“That’s false. The school uses a T1 connection. It can’t be congested.”

“I tried downloading the driver from another computer in this room. It’s literally slower than dial-up right now-“

“No. You will download the driver over the school network, and I expect an essay on my desk tomorrow morning about why hardwired Ethernet is superior to Wi-Fi. I don’t want to see your MacBook out again for the rest of the day. Macs are not allowed in corporate environments.”

Thankfully another teacher (the one who I was actually assisting for that period, Systems teacher liked to interrupt me during this time and make me do work for his class) ran interference long enough for me to get this done, but that was the event. 

The event that made me say: Good god fuck this shit.

I did pass high school with damn near the lowest GPA one can manage, but the experience really caused me to have more questions than answers. I didn’t want to go to college anymore because the main question in my head was, well, am I going to have to deal with more of that? My life plans got turned upside down, I didn’t know what direction was up anymore, and the path I was sure I wanted to walk, well, I wasn’t so sure anymore.

I wasn’t opposed to making some money from this passion of mine, but if that required total and complete bending over for corporate America’s whims as I was taught? Suddenly the notion of chasing this career path looked extremely undesirable.

What happened later with the tech industry becoming poisoned with startup culture kind of reaffirmed that maybe getting steered off that path was a good thing. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise? Who knows.