This short story describes a character-building moment that defines my personality to this day. I have intentionally left out names.
The year was 1999, late September, and everyone was settling into the routine of the new school year. The weather was starting to cool down, and evenings were coming earlier each day. After school, you could hear the rumblings of the football team practicing outside and the consistent interval of the marching band drumming along as they circled the building during their drills.
The school district had one high school, three middle schools, and six elementary schools. In addition to the schools, we had various administration and support staff buildings, including a warehouse, bus garage, and an old house where the food service department was headquartered with some of the most delightful older ladies you could ever meet. These buildings are spread across several towns and a sprawling township in suburban Pittsburgh. To sum it up, we had an extensive school district.
Now that the initial bustle of the new school year was out of the way, the people of southwestern Pennsylvania do what they do best. They find activities to keep them busy during the long slumber of winter that will soon overtake the region.
Football parties (where you could eat the same five things each week and still experience a unique well-prepared culinary interpretation every time) are and have always been a mainstay of Steeler Country. However, many of the residents in the area participate in other activities. Continuing education and indoor activities were a hit because they involved becoming engrossed in some hobby or interest that helps keep the mind off the depressing weather that the region features.
So, every year the local recreation department and the school district work together to schedule fun courses and activities for those who are so inclined. Often, the school district provides the space for such events to take place once the school day is complete. The recreation department would then round up instructors and organize everything.
Now at the time, I was a young professional starting out on my career in technology. Each morning I would soldier through my many college classes while pursuing my degree in Computer Science with a specialization in Networking. Then, I changed gears at midday and worked part-time at the school district as an assistant to the district’s ONLY technologist.
Just think about the challenging and absorbing task the two of us faced. We supported the entire IT infrastructure of the school district, that’s, 15 buildings, computers in every classroom, seven labs in the high school, two in each middle school, and a lab in each elementary school. We served 800 staff members, thousands of students, and the administration. With multiple computer networks, Internet connectivity, and a website to maintain, I often wonder how we pulled it off.
My boss was impressive, especially considering that five years earlier, he was a middle school librarian. The district recognized his aptitude for technology and made him into the whole I.T. department rolled into one man. You can see why I hold tremendous respect for him. He did not have formal training to support this system, yet he kept things running smoothly. He was a machine.
Looking at my daily routine back then makes me feel old now. I worked around the clock and never seemed to run out of energy and stamina.
A new direction
One afternoon while working in the dungeon, as we called our office, the boss man answered the phone. After a few uh-huhs, he says, “I’ll ask him and let you know.” So it turns out that the recreation department wanted to offer computer classes to senior citizens and adults. It seems that they could not find anyone brave enough to do it.
You have to remember that the year was 1999. Older, that is, more experienced people did not seem to like computers. I remember hearing my dad’s generation saying things like “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks,” and “You kids need to study math and skills that matter, and not rely on a computer to do everything for you.”
While I can’t argue that core skills are essential, these people were just making excuses because they did not want to learn computers.
And these were the people they wanted me, a 19-year-old, to teach. Well, I needed the money and liked the idea of teaching. I figured that I teach people all day long anyway. Many computer problems come from a lack of understanding of tech. So teaching people was part of how I solved computer problems.
Since this was my first time teaching a class, I wanted to prepare well. I worked up a course syllabus, study guides, and other support material. I created a quiz and designed a certificate of completion. I wanted my students to walk away from this course with a new skill and be proud of it. So, I decided to teach it workshop style and commended everyone for what they had learned.
The course included up to six two-and-a-half-hour classes set a week apart. They started at 6:30 PM (right after my regular workday ended.) I would not get home until 9 or 10 back then, but I loved every minute.
The first class
I remember the very first class vividly. I am, in the front of a high school classroom, with the previous teacher’s notes still scribbled on the whiteboard behind me.
As I looked out at the group that I would soon come to call friends, I felt the pressure mounting. The room had about 24 adults ranging from 32 to 82 years old. There was a single parent whose kids were in a different activity down the hall. She just got off work and barely made it to class on time. Next, a 60-something couple, the husband, was there because his wife wanted to try something new. He was entirely uninterested, with his nose buried in a magazine most of the time; she was upset that he wasn’t cooperating.
Especially pressuring was the retired elementary school teacher who surely was wondering why I was allowed to teach this class.
The student who stood out the most, however, was the most senior member of our group. She was an 82-year-old cake maker. An entrepreneur and craftswoman who was as sweet as her product.
She entered the classroom with absolutely no knowledge of computers. She did not know how to turn on one. She had a pink pen with a homemade, artsy-crafty heart attached to the eraser. Her notepad was filled with details just minutes into the first lesson.
Now, my plan for the first lesson focused on the basics. How to properly turn a computer on and off, use a mouse, and learn the names of the main components of a computer system, such as the tower, screen, keyboard, and printer.
After we got through the basic terminology, it was time to put everything into practice. The whole group turned on the computers, waited for them to boot up, and showed the login screen. This might seem trivial to you, but this was as compelling as the first time driving a car for them.
You wouldn’t believe how helpful it was to have a login screen. It prevented the students from clicking the wrong things. So nothing crazy happened, and I didn’t have to run around and undo mistakes.
The next big challenge for everyone was learning the mouse.
Now, I instructed everybody to place their hands on the computer mouse and get a sense of how it makes the pointer glide around the screen. The room got quiet as everyone experienced the sensation of a computer reacting to their movement.
I instructed them to click the ‘login’ button saying, “Now, go ahead and put the mouse over the ‘login’ button and give it a click.”
After a moment, I asked, “How is it going? Did everyone log in successfully?”
After about a minute, one hand raised up from the center of the room.
“Mr. Young,” my oldest student quietly squeaked, “it’s not working for me. Can you help me?”
It was a strange feeling being called “Mister Young.” I walked over and asked her to repeat what she was doing.
Reassuringly, I said, “Maybe, I will be able to see what went wrong.”
To my surprise, she picked up the mouse off the desk and lifted it into the air! She held it in front of her computer screen. Then, with her other hand, she pressed the mouse button.
While trying to turn my head aside, I noticed the lady across from her had a silly grin and big eyes. I, too, had to bite my tongue for just a second. It was hard to keep my composure, but I did not want to make her feel bad.
I said, “You know, I think I might know why it didn’t work.”
Imagine explaining why the mouse must stay on the desk to operate it, but I did.
After some practice, she became so excited as it worked for the first time that everyone was moved to clap and cheer her on.
I had to help other students overcome similar struggles with clicking too. They would position the mouse in the correct spot. But then lift their entire hand off the mouse before clicking the button. Moving like this made the mouse slide away and messed up what they were doing.
This story seems implausible today with iPhones and almost everyone using technology, but it happened.
Later during that first class, she told me that she wanted to learn computers to help her track her business finances. I remember thinking her goal was a tall order for someone who had just learned the mouse, followed by group applause. What do you say to that?
The defining moment
As the weeks progressed, however, she bought a computer and made incredible progress. She especially enjoyed Microsoft Excel. It was a perfect solution for her financial tracking needs. She became my best student.
Before long, it was our last class together. I remember having an extended Q-and-A session. It felt like there was no end to the questions my students had. As I wrapped up my closing remarks and congratulated everyone on the progress they made, I gave special commendation to my star pupil.
Despite the frigid conditions that late October had in store outside, it was a warm occasion. Everyone was sad that the class was over and eager to know when the next one was scheduled. It was bittersweet saying goodbye. I did enjoy all the chocolates and gifts, though.
Now, months later. I had been halfway through my next group’s set of lessons. Things were going well, but this new class did not have the interest level that the first had. I was considering whether there was some truth to the “old dogs… new tricks” philosophy.
But then, I received a letter from the recreation office. It was my star student. In her touching note, she shared her excitement over her new computer skills and told me that her whole business operates from a computer now. She thanked me sincerely and encouraged me to keep teaching. I was seriously moved.
It’s not your age that prevents you from learning, it is your attitude!
That day, I realized that I was the student after all. She was my instructor, not by word but by example. She taught me that it’s not your age that prevents you from learning. It is your attitude!
I hope that many years from now, after many football seasons have passed when I am 82 years old, I will still be eagerly learning new things and never let anything hold me back. Maybe then, some wide-eyed go-getting 19-year-old will learn from my example and keep the buck moving forward.
I hope the same for you.