Where My Desire to Give Back Comes From – Being Poor but Loved and Lucky
For the first 20 years of my life, I was poor but happy with a heart full of hope and a head full of dreams. My family life was idyllic in the sense that I was surrounded by love from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and my lil brother. Not only that, but I had great friends in all stages of my education: from grammar school to high school to my 1 year stint at college. (Sidenote: all my schooling was private, no public school for me.) The fact that I never had money didn’t bother me. I was rich in love, the only true treasure in life.
During this early influential period, I learned that I controlled my destiny and that my friends and family would support me in my efforts, no matter how crazy my ideas were. My 6th grade year (Fall 1988 to Spring 1989) was a real turning point for me. I learned that I was in control of my financial future via my ability to work, my ability to express myself via the written word and visual arts, and lastly how to bend a computer to do my will via programming. I learned this not through some big brilliant deduction on my part, but rather through a series of small random moments under the guidance of some great people.
One day that year, my mom told me I’d have to start earning my own “spending cash”. “It’s not that I don’t want to give you money. It’s just that I don’t have any to give you,” she said with tears in her eyes. It was painful for her to say, but I’m eternally grateful she did because it taught me to never depend on any one or any thing for my financial success. Another monumental event that year that I must’ve been influenced by was when I walked up to my friends one morning and opened with, “I’m going to be a great business man someday.” With tilted heads and puzzled looks, they asked, “What?” I replied. “I’m going to be an important business man someday. Therefore, I need to start learning all about business now in preparation for that day.” The uncultured swines didn’t get it and said, “Whatever, let’s go play on the field.” I never forgot that feeling though and never stopped preparing to be that person.
I remember the day in English class that Gary Van Moorleghem told us to write a paragraph on our favorite food. I wrote my paragraph on pizza. I wish I had saved that paper, not that it was a great paragraph in the world of literature. No, rather, because of how much that simple paragraph expanded my mind. From that moment forward, I knew that if I tried hard enough, I could communicate anything. I also did my first truly great drawing of Scrooge McDuck for Mr. Van Moorleghem. I realized that I had the power to create worlds with a pencil using lines and shading or using letters and words.
Lastly, my elementary school had 2 Apple ][ (either c or e, I can’t recall). In an amazing bit of foresight, they required students to take 1 or 2 sessions of computer programming class. We had to take them on Saturday mornings, so as not to interfere with the work schedule of our teacher, Mr. McKinney who worked at Jet Propulsion Laboritories. It also cost $50, which my mom grudgingly covered since it was education and not “spending cash” worthy. I excelled in that course. Part of your grade was awarded on successfully testing and crashing other student’s projects. I was the king of crashing others, while being good at defensive coding to prevent others from breaking my app. (A habit that’s still with me today and why I don’t unit test, I just try to break my app instead.) I suppose I was talented at the programming thing because when I turned in the last assignment and asked, “What should I do now?” He was shocked. “You did all the assignments?” I nodded. “No one has ever done all the assignments.” He came up with more excercises for me to do and to keep me learning.
These 3 things seemed trivial when they occurred, but have been influential in my life ever since:
Sense of Self Worth: I’ve read a lot of biographies on great people. A common thread I’ve found is that great people are told often that they will be great as they grow up. They’re told they are special and come to believe that as fact. I was given the vision that I was to be a great businessman and my mom helped give me a push to start the training early. I was never unsure of myself growing up. In fact, if you were to take a friend from the 6th grade and ask them what I was like, it would be the same description that could fit me today (except I was waaaaay skinnier back then). I wasn’t popular or a cool kid, but I was fine with that. I knew my mark in life would come later and that everything up until then would just be prep time.
Ability to Communicate: I’ve wrote A LOT in my first 20 years. I was probably more prolific from the 6th grade til college than I will be any other time in my life. I had no job, no wife, no kids, no responsibilities. I could just sit and write for the sake of writing. I would sit in malls with headphones on but walkman turned off just to hear how people spoke in dialog. I would trace how subjects changed and jumped during conversation. I would speak/type in iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets in early internet chat rooms in college. This “wasteful” past time gave me practice at communicating. One thing I do well that many programmers don’t is communicate clearly.
Power to Program: What I love most about my chance childhood was that I was introduced to programming at such a young age, found out I was amazingly wonderful at it and then denied a computer for the next decade. I didn’t become an anti social hacker, holed up in a room, spending more time with my keyboard than with friends. I never even really remember wanting a computer. I can’t even say that I knew I wanted to become a programmer. My vision was that I would be an important businessman and computer programming (to my inexperienced mind) didn’t seem to fit that image. Sidenote: The girls and boys were even in student representation and software output. It’s sad that we lose so many women in our field, but that’s another story for another day.
Of these 3 people who made these 3 things happen, only one had a truly vested interest in me: my mom. Only, she didn’t choose to do her item by choice; it was by circumstance that she would’ve avoided if she could. However, the other two had options. Mr. VanMoorleghem could’ve taken a far better paying job than the one at my tiny private school. He could’ve blown us off with a “They don’t pay me enough to care” and been totally right in the eyes of many. But he didn’t, he cared tremendously about us. We weren’t some magnate private school for gifted children either. We were a collection of kids from the ghetto and spoiled rich brats. Yet, he gave so much to us because he loved being a teacher. Did he know just how much influence he’d have on me, probably not, but that makes his efforts that much more noble. And Mr. McKinney took time on Saturdays to teach that same bunch of misfits how to program a computer. I can’t even fanthom who thought that was a good idea: if he approached the school or they approached him. Someone via divine inspiration realized the future would be in software and thus the Saturday class was born. This man, who I bet wasn’t even paid, donated time to teach kids a secret art (at that time). I don’t know how many kids went on to be programmers, but I for one am glad he took the time to teach and keep me learning during that influential time.
Note: This is one part of a 3 post series.