Sometime around sixth grade, I was introduced to programming by my computer-science teacher, a man who apparently had an incredibly obvious toupee.
Or so I continually heard. The man taught me two important things at that very young age: first, programming is magical, and second, I am a member of that unlucky fraction of the population who suffers from profound toupee blindness. Apparently that thing was just sprawled on top of his head, brazen in its disregard for the average human capacity for perception, but no amount of staring on my part would reveal it to me.
Either my condition persists to this day, or I have never encountered another toupee since, despite living in a densely populated area. You be the judge.
Sixth grade was a long time ago. I can’t remember whether we were using mice yet in the computer lab, but if so, it was a fairly new concept to me, as I was more used to simply navigating with the keyboard. Digital photographs and CD-ROMS, while they probably existed somewhere, had not yet appeared in my small-town reality. For quite a while to come, we would have to print documents on those godforsaken rolls of paper, the ones you had to tear the perforated edges off of — perhaps the last version of the scroll ever to be used by human civilization. (One hopes.)
Our version of the Internet wasn’t yet called the Internet. It was available in any colors you liked, as long as you liked orange and black, and it only went as far as Indiana. I still thought it was awesome. I had an “email account” on it starting in fifth grade, and I checked it every time my parents took me to the public library.
To put this in perspective, AOL wouldn’t appear in homes around town until I was a junior in high school. When I was in fifth grade, my parents did not yet understand that it was even technically possible to communicate with another human being using a computer unless you cushioned that floppy disk with a LOT of bubble wrap before mailing it.
In fact, when she found out what I was doing, my mother was horrified — and quite ahead of her time for worrying that I was being groomed by hordes of Indiana sex offenders. The Pedophile Era was coming, yes, but at that early stage, I was more likely talking to a hardcore nerd.
Emailing random geeky strangers had been entertaining, but when I was introduced to programming the next year, I entered another realm entirely. The day I found out ordinary humans could teach computers how to be computers, much less eleven-year-old ordinary humans such as myself, I’m sure I wore the same are-you-shitting-me expression Dorothy gave the good witch upon discovering her ability to teleport herself just by knocking a couple of glittery shoes together.
With the help of a certain lush-haired teacher, I wrote a few lines of code, and then another few, and another. Before long, I was reaching toward my own ideas of what I might do with those few lines if I rearranged them or added to them.
Every programmer knows the curious, mentally itchy feeling of outgrowing imitation and venturing into creation, of that first tentative-but-sly appearance of such a simple, incredible question: What if …? And then you try something no one has taught you, some new permutation yielded by the shameless Frankenstein-ing of whatever you knew before. When this tactic actually works, you feel like a freaking wizard.
There’s no exaggerating the headiness of that moment: You truly believe, even just for a short time, that you can do whatever the fuck you want.
In response to that smug sensation to end all smug sensations, my young, fresh, breathtakingly absorbent brain — the one I so foolishly took for granted — reacted with a sentiment no one would assign a perfect word to until cats ruled the Internet: MOAR.
My greatest accomplishment was a diary program in which you confessed the secret details of your daily life to a tough-talking cab driver named Eddie, who then made you feel better about your angsty, pre-teen circumstances with his wry mix of grit and affection. I was so incredibly proud of that program.
Twenty years would pass before I wrote another one.