The best advice my mother ever gave me.
My mom shared a lot of sage advice with me when I was little. She would say things like… “Put stuff away so you can find it when you need it later” or “You better learn to cook, clean, and sew because there will come a time when I won’t be around to do these things for you.”
Great advice overall but the two best things my mom ever said to me were…
- “Literacy is the cure for poverty because when you know what you are reading, no one can ever pull the wool over your eyes.”
- “Learn the language of computers. You may not think so now but computers are our future.”
While there is an amazing story that accompanies this leading up to my birthday, I will spare you the details and give you the short version instead.
I was 13 years when I bought my first computer… a Tandy 1000HX.
This beauty was powered by a blistering fast Intel 8808 CPU, it had 256Kbs of onboard memory, one 700Kb 3.5” disk drive (which was an improvement over the 5.25” floppy drives from the EX) and it came with MS-DOS 2.11 built into the ROM and Deskmate 2 on diskette! The monitor was also state of the art! A 13” Tandy CM-11 capable of producing 16 AMAZING colors which was 8 more than its predecessor.
The cost… 6 months of my life delivering newspapers for the Sacramento Bee and $1627! In 1987 this was about 2 mortgage payments for my folks or about $3500 in today’s money. No wonder my dad thought I was crazy for wanting to buy this.
The funny thing is that somehow, even though I paid for the computer and monitor, my parents claim they gave them to me as a “birthday present.” Just to be clear… they only contributed a little over $10 because I had miscalculated how much tax I had to pay.
Anyways I digress… I unboxed the computer and monitor the Sunday after my birthday. The set-up was easy. I connected the power cords to the computer and monitor and then the VGA cable from the monitor to the port in back of the computer.
I felt like E.T. reaching out to touch Billy when I finally went to press the “On” button for the first time. The monitor screen flickered and then went dark and then a cursor prompt appeared beckoning for the DeskMate diskette. The machine started whirring as soon as I inserted the diskette into the drive. Then, once the computer read the information it needed, the screen glowed with the red, blue and yellow operating environment that gave me access to a basic word processor, spreadsheet, calendar and filing system.
WHAT??? I just waited an eternity to open this “present” to find out that I was only able to type, file and manage my day? What happened to the games and graphics and other cool stuff that I saw at the store?
Oh yeah those… those are called programs and I would come to find that programs cost extra!
I am sure that I clicked around for a little while before getting bored and realizing that this really wasn’t as much fun as I thought. I powered off my system and laid in bed looking up at the ceiling thinking what a waste and how this was the worst Sunday ever!
After telling my mom once she woke up, she told me not to worry. You see although my mom spoke limited English, she somehow learned that computers needed programs to be fun and if you couldn’t afford to buy them… then maybe you should learn to make them yourself. So, unbeknownst to me, she signed me up for computer classes starting the very next day.
Enter Mrs. Ida Sydnor and BSCCO.
My mom heard of Mrs. Sydnor through a mutual friend. Mrs. Sydnor was the founder and director of BSCCO, Black Sacramento Christian Club Organizers. BSCCO was an organization that was dedicated to teaching computer technology and Christian values. During the daytime Mrs. Sydnor and the BSCCO team taught what are the equivalent of workforce development skills to adults. In the afternoons, they ran after-school and summer school programs for kids. Although it was called BSCCO Mrs. Sydnor always said that “God loves us all the same regardless of some of us being a shade lighter or darker than others.”
My mom liked Mrs. Sydnor and BSCCO because their focus was on keeping kids off the street and giving them choices and opportunities. Violence and the drug epidemic were on the rise in the Oak Park area and although I was a “smart kid” I did hang around with some knuckleheads that my mom wanted to keep me away from. My mom also and especially liked that they had a dress code and that kids that were accepted into the program had to wear “business attire.” For us “young men” this meant a collared shirt, slacks and sometimes even a tie.
It was at BSCCO where I met my first computer teacher… Mr. Ernest. Although it would be 20+ years later that I would have any idea what the term “computer science” meant or what a “computer scientist” was, Mr. Ernest was the first I ever knew.
Mr. Ernest was a very smart and sweet Nigerian man who smoked like a chimney, wore tinted Coke bottle thick glasses and had a gap between his front teeth that made a whistling sound every time he talked. He always dressed in a white short sleeved button-down shirt, khaki slacks, and a bowtie.
Mr. Ernest taught us BASIC, Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Code, a line-by-line code that is executed just as it is translated which makes it easier to locate errors. It was designed so that non-computer scientifical people could use computers. People just like me!
Since it was summertime, I spent as much time as I could at BSCCO. I would watch and learn as much as I could from anyone willing to teach me. I started bringing my own diskettes so that could copy code and then go home and practice on my computer. It was the best summer my 13-year-old self could have probably wished for!
As time progressed Mr. Ernest broadened our knowledge with C and then C++ and then it happened… I was offered my first real job.
While at my twice a year dental checkup and cleaning I overheard my dentist say that he had a backlog of files that they needed to have organized. I asked what he was looking for and he described that he needed to be able to keep track of x-rays and patient files and organize them. I chuckled and said that I could write a program for him to do that. He said, “I don’t believe you but if you can I will pay you $3.35 per hour to do so.” We shook on it and I was to start the following week. I was 14 and half years old.
My first call when I got home was to my manager with the Sacramento Bee to quit my paper route because I now had an “office job”. My next phone call was to Mrs. Sydnor and Mr. Ernest because taking the job at the dentist’s office would mean that I would not be able to continue taking classes at BSCCO since it was at the same time and my work shift.
Mrs. Sydnor told me to make sure that I came to all my classes until I started my new job because she wanted to see me and give me “a proper goodbye hug.” I respected her wishes and came to each class for the rest of the week. Although he didn’t say it to me directly, I overhead Mr. Ernest tell my mom that he was happy that he could help another one us kids not fall victim to the violence of the streets.
I never saw Mrs. Sydnor or Mr. Ernest again. Mrs. Ida Sydnor passed away in 2011 at the age of 78. I don’t know what happened to Mr. Ernest. Without his last name, all of my previous Google searches for “Mr. Ernest BSCCO Sacramento” have turned up zero results.
What I do know is this… computer science has been the master key that has unlocked so many doors for me and my family personally and professionally. As a result, I have received amazing educational opportunities, worked on some really cool projects, traveled to exotic lands, and I have met some pretty incredible people. I even managed to put some money in my pocket.
My childhood, however, is not reflective of the opportunities that many kids had then or even have today.
It is crazy to think that 35+ years later not all students have access to a computer or the internet. Not all schools teach computer science. Not all backgrounds are represented in the computer science fields and they are still very male dominated. Worse still is that the Mrs. Sydnors and Mr. Ernests of the world are becoming fewer and fewer.
So mom, if you are reading this right now… You were right and thank you for your sacrifices!
Mrs. Sydnor and Mr. Ernest… I will forever be grateful for the lessons learned and encouragement you gave. I hope to continue what you started and leave the world a better place than I found it, even if it is just one more kid at a time.
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