Growing up programmer

When I was a kid, I was very naive. More so than normal, I think. I also lacked social self-awareness. One incident in high school comes to mind.

Act I: In which I am not especially tactful

My high school was what we call a “technical” high school – it’s like a standard high school, but one in which you learn some kind of trade. Like a mini-college of sorts. My course was “Data Processing”, which means you learn programming.

This being 1992, one of the first things we learned was the BASIC programming language; a language I already knew it, having taught it to myself 5 years prior. We were learning the language with a new teacher. I don’t remember the details, but I think he was a substitute teacher, or some kind of new replacement. All I remember is that I didn’t know him very well, and he wasn’t one of our normal teachers.

One day, he was teaching us the FOR…NEXT commands. The combination of these commands allow you to count one variable from a value to another, creating a loop. This is a simple concept.

The problem was, his explanation of the commands didn’t make any sense. Worse than that, they were factually incorrect.

So here I am sitting at class, struggling to accept that this teacher has no idea of what he is talking about, but is still pretending to teach us something. I am fidgeting at my seat, hoping he’ll get on track and teach the class the concept.

He never does. I am either 14 or 15 at the time, a little shy, but at some point I just decide that enough is enough. I stand up, tell him in no uncertain terms that what he is saying is all wrong. I walk to the black board, take about 10 seconds to say what’s wrong with his approach, and show what the commands actually do. I do this knowing I sound angry, because that’s how I felt. I do this, go back to my seat, and sit down, angry but relieved.

Then the entire class screams.

While I was talking and drawing on the board, I have no idea what the reaction of my colleagues actually was. Did they think I was crazy? Did they make fun of me? Did they think I was a hero?

I don’t remember the outcome very well. Some people thanked me after class, but mostly I think people were entertained by something so out of the blue.

The teacher himself was unmoved. He blurted something about opinion and how there are different ways to explain something, or something to that effect. I didn’t buy it for a second; his explanation was outright wrong. But I was not in it for an argument: I wanted to have my say, to let the students know he was wrong. I didn’t really care about his opinion.

I never thought much about the incident afterwards. I never noticed any different attitude coming from the teacher towards me; but then again, I wasn’t really adept at detecting cues.

Act II: In which vengeance is misunderstood for incompetence

I was especially proud in high school of my test and paper scores. At least to anything related to programming, I would almost always come with 10s, which was the highest score you could achieve. Those were given per quarter; the grade for every quarter was made of the average of your test scores and paper scores. Those were added up to get your final score at the end of the year, so the maximum score you could have was a 40 (10 for every quarter). You needed an 18 to “pass” the grade.

I would always check my scores and be happy that I got another 10. If I got a 9, for example, I’d be pissed. So you can imagine my surprise when I checked my score for the class taught by this teacher and it was a no more than a 3.

For that quarter, the scores would come from the average of two things: a test, and a paper on some subject I forgot. I was convinced I had aced both, so an honest mistake had to be made somewhere.

I went for the teacher to ask what was going on. He broke it down to me as such: I had scored a 6 in my test, and I didn’t deliver the paper he requested. Therefore, the quarter score (the average) was 3.

I asked to see the test. He didn’t have it; he claimed he had lost it.

I asked to see the papers; I had properly delivered my written paper. He said he didn’t have the papers anymore.

The funny thing about the paper is that I had added a colleague of mine as one of the authors, just to give him a good score (you were allowed to write papers in duos) even though I wrote the paper myself. My friend got a score of 10 for the paper, but I got a 0.

At the time I didn’t think much of it. I was just a kid. I assumed some mistake was made but never doubted his explanation that things were lost, and never raised any complaints. I had already achieved the needed score to get a passing grade.

Act III: In which I look back

It’s only many years later – really, I was about 30 already – that I thought of the incident and that things suddenly clicked: the teacher had tried to punish me for correcting – and, maybe – humiliating – him in front of the class!

I didn’t get a bad score at the test: he just gave me a low score and made the test disappear, so it couldn’t be checked. He did get my paper: but he didn’t want to give me the score for it.

Today, I like to think I am more tactful, or, at least, aware that feelings can be hurt in the quest for correctness. It is a lesson I’ve learned well over time, and not because of the teacher’s reaction.

But, more than everything, I’m sad for the teacher, which counteracted lack of tact with lack of honesty.

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