The Biggest Loser

"Ipso facto to this, you pissy little bitch!"

I used to teach computer classes back in the mid-90’s. At the time, computers were just starting to become an indispensable tool in the business world, and thanks to the global pornography network known as the internet being made public, it was starting to become an indispensable tool at home as well, if only because guys needed something different to jerk it to (the lingerie section of the Sears Roebuck catalog only came out twice a year, after all. Not that I would know.) “This is a great investment, honey!” guys would say. “We can use it to balance our checkbook!” How this was accomplished by dumping man-juice all over the keyboard was left unexplained.

With a sudden influx of clueless computer users, there was a market for hungover 20-somethings with tech skills to show them how to do things. And that’s where I came in. I was the guy that stood in front of the room and explained how things were done. I had, for instance, a course called Introduction to Computers that was designed for the most feeble of computer users: Seniors. With a large amount of seniors in town, there was a huge market for a class that explained basic terminology in a non-threatening way. And this, honest-to-God, is how I started off each class:

“Ok, everyone, it’s time to get started. We’ve got a lot to cover, so pay attention. There will be no time for questions or to go over important points more than once. You need to stay with me. Ok, let’s get started by talking about core dumps. Now, as you all know, core dumps are usually expressed in hexadecimal so I hope you’re up on that. Let’s write down on the board a typical core dump and see who can tell me which memory address is most likely to be affected, and what the cause of the fault is.”

I would then scribble mercilessly on the board for 30 seconds or so, while saying things such as, “Remember, 4C is the 8052 processor terminology for a Jump command, so if you see it, get ready to combine the next two blocks and jump to that memory address.” Then I’d turn and look at the students who were frozen in place, a look of fear on their face as if I had just armed a live thermonuclear device and set the timer to 0:10.

“I’m kidding. That is what you’re afraid of when you turn on a computer, isn’t it? But that’s not what it’s like. Today I’m going to teach you some basic terms that will allow you to talk to other people about computers, and I’m going to show you how to turn a computer on, start a program, stop a program, restart a computer, and all the other basic stuff you need to know in order to get started. It will be simple, I promise, and hopefully it will be fun too.”

I could have stopped teaching class right then and there and gotten 100% satisfaction on the post-class evaluation I had them fill out. They were so thankful I didn’t continue to use terms such as “hexadecimal”, “core-dump”, “pointer”, or “assembly language”, that I probably could have spent the next 4 hours spelling out the benefits of converting to Satanism and they would have been ok with it.

"The teacher was clear and concise, and I learned a lot about Valdok the Rampant!"

“The teacher was clear and concise, and I learned a lot about Valdok the Rampant!”

When you teach computer classes, you quickly learn a lot of tricks like that. For example, I used to race through the syllabus each class in an effort to give the students all of the information the class offered, and then would go even further, teaching concepts from the next class as well. I soon discovered that they hated that. So I kept dialing back the actual teaching portion of the class until I found the sweet spot: 90% entertainment, 10% actually doing my job. The students that paid for my services didn’t so much want to learn about how to perform a mail merge in Microsoft Word as they did want to hear hilarious anecdotes about Microsoft’s spellchecker.

I used to tell the spellchecker anecdote about halfway through the Intro to MS Word class. After teaching everyone how to use the spellchecker, I would caution them about using it blindly. In the mid-90’s, Microsoft bowed to the PC crowd by adding a PC checker that would (depending on your settings in Word) helpfully inform you, for instance, that the words “smelly behemoth” might be considered offensive and suggest that you replace them with the word “Milwaukeean” instead.

My hometown newspaper, in 1995, published a long and informative article on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The editor dutifully ran the article through MS Word’s spellchecker and blindly accepted all of its spelling advice, as well as its objection to the plane’s name, which is how the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, the Enola Gay, came to be referred to throughout the entire article as the Enola Homosexual.

I'm just going to drop this photo here without comment.

I’m just going to drop this photo here without comment.

(After one class in which I told this anecdote, a student one-upped me: He worked for a company that provided pre-configured computer systems for the medical industry. The company put all of their eggs in one basket and bet the farm on a new, state of the art computer system that they felt was going to put them over the top. Before sending the MS Publisher files over to the printer to print out glossy, color brochures, someone had the bright idea of running everything through the spellchecker. Unfortunately, the processor name “Pentium” was not yet in the dictionary, and the soon-to-be-jobless employee just blindly accepted all the recommendations. The boss was less than enthused when he realized a few days later that every single brochure that had been mailed to every single prospective client in North America referred to their new system as having a state of the art dual-penis processor.)

So I’d tell stories like that, teach students how to cut and paste, and above all, how to use the help menu, and they fucking loved me. I quickly learned which classes I could tell dirty jokes in, which classes I could end early so I could go hit a bar, and which classes involved techie types that required more actual teaching: I’d simply tell them, “You’re too smart for this class. So instead of listening, see if you can figure out how to do _____ instead.” For some reason, they would hail me as being this great teacher, when all I was doing was ordering students to teach themselves.

One set of classes I dreaded, however, were the ones taught at the local library. We always had students come to our training center because we controlled the environment. A couple of times we went to teach a home course, only to discover that the “brand new” computer system the customer assured us he had, was actually a precursor to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But in the 90’s, Microsoft was getting their asses sued off by the federal government and so, in a show of good will, they started donating computers and money to local libraries. That was pretty clever, actually. They came across as “doing the right thing”, when in fact they were just paying people to train users how to use their product. And when the libraries looked for someone to do the teaching, they called me.

So I’d get to a library, ready to teach Introduction to Windows 95, and I’d discover that the library had helpfully booked 45 people for a class that had 6 computers. This was always a nightmare, and I made sure that I “lost” the post-class evaluations because I would get blamed because the librarians couldn’t count to six. “Ok, for those of you in front of a computer, please follow along. For those of you without a computer, just mentally undress attractive classmates, because it’ll be much more rewarding than standing there with your thumb up your butt.”

if you absolutely must, however, Microsoft has also paid for the services of Brittany. She'll help you out.

if you absolutely must, however, Microsoft has also paid for the services of Brittany. She’ll help you out.

In one of these classes, a short bespectacled man with extremely greasy hair sat in between a couple of senior women who were in front of a computer. He wore a Sipowicz-style short-sleeve dress shirt with tie, darks slacks, and dress shoes, and held onto a 1950’s-style executive briefcase. I knew he was going to be trouble from the get-go.

I introduced myself to the class, apologized for the library’s overbooking policy, and quickly went down what I planned to cover during our four hours together. With that having been said, I got right down to it.

Me: Ok, a lot of you have probably heard about this thing called Windows 95.

Sipowicz: (to lady on his left) Ok, computers are the wave of the future. In the future, they’re going to do everything. They’re amazing. Now I have an important business meeting to attend today, but I wanted to come here because we all need to know that computers are the wave of the future…

And on and on and on he would go. He’d grab the mouse from the distracted woman in front of the computer and begin clicking on everything in sight. This would go on for five or ten minutes while I continued with my lesson and then I’d tell everyone to perform some simple task.

Sipowicz: Excuse me. We’ve been forging ahead. Where should we be?

A quick glance at the screen revealed that he had no fucking clue what he was doing. A random number of windows had been opened, dialog boxes sat there, unanswered, the screen resolution had been changed, and the default language was no longer English. I’d quickly put everything back to normal and admonish the guy to “stay with the class”, and continue on with the class.

Sipowicz: Right. Thanks. (to woman on his left) As my colleague has demonstrated, a thorough knowledge of computers is essential. They are the wave of the future. Now, in my important meeting later on today…

Every time this asshole would fuck things up, I’d put them right, and he’d go back to the well: Wave of the future, I have an important business meeting to attend later, here, let me fuck everything up for you again while I blather on about shit I obviously know nothing about.

Finally, I had enough and told him, “I’m going to need you to stop distracting the other students, ok? You may not want to listen, but they do.” He reacted to this by turning his attention to the woman on the other side of him.

Sipowicz: Hi! Are you as excited as I am to be here? Computers are the wave of the future…

This shit went on and on and on. I didn’t feel comfortable telling the guy to leave, and he simply wouldn’t listen to my repeated requests to shut the fuck up. Finally, a librarian came over and addressed him. “Sir! You are not teaching the class. If you would like to teach a class, maybe you should pay attention to this one, as you obviously have no idea what you’re talking about. Please stop disturbing the class or I will ask you to leave the library. Do you understand?”

This merely slowed Sipowicz down for a few minutes, and soon he began his interminable “wave of the future” ramblings anew, only now, in order to reassert his authority as an expert on computers, he began to refer to his briefcase. “I have some important documents in here that spell out how our lives will change when the wave of the future…” blah, blah, blah.

By this point, pretty much everyone had tuned him out, paying him as much attention as they paid to the hum of the air conditioner. I wound up the class by passing out business cards and made sure to tell everyone that while our class prices were low, they were high enough to serve as a deterrent to the type of person that shows up at a free class to ramble on about nothing in particular, a comment that was received with a lot of grins and dramatic eye-rolling.

As the class broke up, we all walked en masse towards the front door. “Excellent class!” said Sipowicz. “I wonder if you have a moment to talk about the business implications?”

“No,” I said, without breaking stride.

“That’s too bad. Because I’d like to pick your brain sometime, or at least see what you think of my documents. Quite clearly, we’re on the edge of a revolution…”

I couldn’t believe that this guy was still going at it. He looked every bit like the kind of guy that still, at around age 40, lived at home with his parents. I guess I should’ve felt bad for him as he obviously had very little in the way of a life if this was his idea of entertainment, and was probably clinically delusional if he seriously thought anybody was buying whatever the fuck he was selling. But as it was, I just fucking hated the guy. That’s when Karma stepped in to lend a hand.

As we left the library, we were walking down the steps and he began referring to the brilliant technical documents in his briefcase, which he brandished with a flourish, slamming it into the handrail. The briefcase flew open and a single brown bag flew down the steps, spilling its contents at the bottom: An apple, a sandwich in a plastic baggie, and a small container of milk, much like they give out for lunch at an elementary school. That was it.

And that was enough to crack this asshole’s self-important façade: As he gathered up his lunch, the rest of the students began to openly laugh at him. He looked up, blushed furiously, and sprinted through the parking lot and around the corner. As I drove away a few minutes later, I saw him sitting on a bench at the bus stop, obviously boring someone to tears. I didn’t have to roll down the window to hear what he was saying. I could read it on his lips: Wave of the future.

16 Responses to “The Biggest Loser”

  1. Those were tough years for Steve Jobs, before he got Apple back.

    • Greg says:

      Nahh, Steve Jobs would’ve been tripping balls. Dude knew how to innovate AND drop acid.

      I think it was Bill Gates’ idiot brother Earl.

  2. Nico says:

    Speaking of smarty-pants computer stuff, I finally figured out how to fix my function keys refusing to change the volume on my laptop.

    • Greg says:

      You should teach a class.

      • Nico says:

        It would consist of me saying, “fucking Google it.” and then rolling my eyes before I left.

        • Greg says:

          I taught a class where that was virtually all I said (although Google didn’t exist yet, so I think I pointed them to Yahoo!). Introduction to the Internet. Real tough shit. “These are links. Click them. Use your back button. This is where you type an address. This is how you search for things.” For four hours.

          Actually, with the right class, it could be a lot of fun. And one time we tried a Family Internet class where we’d teach a parent and a child for a discount rate. During the first break, a pre-pubescent boy said (while his mom was in the bathroom) “Before my mom comes back, where do I go to see naked ladies on the internet?”

          “Well, I’m pretty sure that your mom wouldn’t appreciate me telling you that. So let’s focus on what we’re supposed to talk about in this class instead. Like SEARCH ENGINES, and how they let you SEARCH FOR ANYTHING.”

          He paused for a second before he saw the light. “Oh! OH! THANKS!” He was all grins the rest of the class.

          • Nico says:

            I consider myself barely knowledgeable enough to own a computer. Fortunately, I am JUST smart enough to realize I’m an idiot, so I don’t go poking around unless I’m certain it won’t make my lappy asplode.

            I would be a terrible teacher. I have no patience, especially when dealing with people who can’t learn or have no attention span. I learn quickly (except when it comes to math, it’s a shame how math-intolerant my brain is) so when people don’t pick things up at even a moderate pace, part of me believes they’re just fucking with me to see how long it takes for a blood vessel to pop in my eyeball.

  3. Fireball says:

    Valdok the Rampant!!!

  4. Vesta Vayne says:

    One of the classes I used to teach was an online course. We only met in person for the first and last class. Every quarter I had a handful of (usually older) students that had no idea how to use a computer, or the internet. I had office hours on campus every week, and it was usually spent teaching them how to upload their assignments, or use email, or whatever. I really admired that they were trying to get on board with technology, and did what I could to help. But there were times when I was like, dude, couldn’t you have learned the basics before signing up for an online course?

    Dual-penis processor 🙂

    I wonder how many people looked at that and thought, ‘hey, I could use one of those!’

    • Greg says:

      I was told that an entire insurance company had signed up for all the classes: Intro to Windows, Intro to Word, Intro to Excel, all the intermediate and advanced classes, etc. The first class they showed up for was Intro to Excel.

      I started off every Excel class by drawing a typical window on the white board and naming all the parts: Title Bar, Menu Bar, Button Bar, etc. When I got to the Button Bar, I wanted to show them how you could hover over a button to get a description of it.

      “Ok, everyone point your mouse to the button that looks like a pair of scissors.”

      Every single person in the class picked the mouse up off the desk and pointed it to the screen.

      We quickly changed the class to Intro to Windows so we could get on top of that.

      I could understand the old timers in that room. They were 60-something year old guys who’d done all their insurance shit on tables with paper, pencil, and calculator. But there were a couple of guys who looked to be fresh out of college. Even in 1996, who in their twenties had no idea how to use a mouse?

      We also had a lady who told me (although I didn’t see it for myself) that when she first got her computer at home, she ran the mouse around the back of the desk and onto the floor. She thought it was a foot pedal, an idea she got from years and years of using a sewing machine.

      You had to have a lot of patience to teach, something I’m sure you learned.

  5. Aaah, Windows 95. Makes me feel nostalgic. Microsoft is a bastard – getting everyone hooked on their technology, fitting all new laptops with Windows, etc.

    Nowadays I find myself teaching my mum on how to use touchscreen devices. She uses it as if the devil is going to grab hold of her finger and suck her into the void. But it’s still easier to teach her on touchscreens than on normal PCs.

    And have you ever had someone randomly end up in a folder and go “oh heck, what are all these messy files here doing? Ok, lets delete them all”, and they delete masses of .dll files? Aaargh, makes me cringe.

    • Greg says:

      Flippy! Long time, no see, compadre!

      Yeah, in the training center (I was the training center manager, as well as an instructor), I finally got tired of dealing with shit like that and made a master drive to copy onto the hard drives of all the machines. Intermediate Windows (file management) did it every time.

      “Hey! We don’t need this directory called Windows!”

      I also had some guy launch random programs until he stumbled across a registry utility. He fucked that machine up but good.

      So in the end, I’d just let them hammer on the machines, and anything that began acting squirrelly, I’d set aside and reimage it over the weekend.

  6. Reanna says:

    Gawd, I wish you could teach my mother. I bought my parents a computer in the late ’90s, and my mom decided she had to learn to type really well before she could use the internet. Several years and computers later, she periodically starts up Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and starts from scratch. As far as I know, she has yet to look at a website without my dad sitting there and clicking through it for her.

    • Greg says:

      That’s funny, I have heard many stories about people who are absolutely convinced that they have to learn how to type in order to learn a computer. As if anyone cares how long it takes you to type LOL.

  7. […] Last Monday, we learned that even brilliant IT moguls that hang out at the public library brown bag it. […]

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