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.
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.
(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.”
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.