The Apple co-founder spent his own money, and more importantly, lots of his own time, showing us public school kids how to use the early internet.
I grew up in Silicon Valley two decades before it was cool enough to be the title of a show on HBO. My parents were conventional hippies who drove Volvos donned with "Save Tibet" and "Question Authority" bumper stickers. The public elementary school I went to in the Santa Cruz Mountains had only 30 kids in the 5th grade.
No matter their livelihoods or income levels, whether they were on food stamps or had enough money to get their kids their own miniature drivable Power Wheels Jeeps for Christmas —the parents would help out in whatever ways they could. My dad would take our class on nature walks while another girl's mom led our Girl Scout troop. In 5th grade, we'd stay after school so my friend Sara's dad could teach us about computers.
Sara's dad happens to be Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.
"It was less important to me what you teach, and more important to motivate people by making things as fun as you can," Wozniak told me recently over the phone, after I reconnected with him nearly 22 years later. "I had that liberty because I was sponsoring the class myself and wasn't under the guidance of a principal. My intent was not to train people to become computer specialists or work for computer companies. We don't need everyone in life to be computer experts."
The Keys to the Kingdom of the Early Internet
Wozniak was teaching my 5th grade class back in 1995, almost a decade after the brain behind the Apple 1 had left the company to start other ventures, including CL9, which brought the first programmable remote control to the commercial market.
Thinking back to that class, I remember looking out the classroom window on our first day. It was raining and Steve walked across the playground wearing a red, white, and yellow umbrella hat—indicative of his love for quirky innovations. He walked in, took off his hat, and asked us to gather around. Then he pulled a floppy disk out of his pocket and proceeded to take it apart to show us what each piece did. In the back of the room were 30 brand new Apple Macintosh PowerBooks (1400c) on loan to us. He said that those who mastered the concepts would get to keep theirs at the end of the year.
"It was less important to me what you teach, and more important to motivate people by making things as fun as you can."
We spent the next months learning how to use the internet, set up a network, and build simple webpages. I remember feeling like I had the keys to some magical kingdom.
Steve had a sincere demeanor about the class, but he made sure to keep things interesting. Some days he'd bring us McDonald's Happy Meals, which felt rebelliously exciting for kids who were regularly force-fed granola by health conscious parents. He also loved sharing fun gadgets with us. One day he gave us all laser pens, which he instantly must have realized was a mistake, as we spent the rest of class sneakily trying to blind each other.
When I Discovered the Web Wasn't Made By Spiders
I was not exactly your ideal tech learner. When Steve told us he was going to teach us how to get on the "world wide web", I imagined some secret underground tunnel where we'd be able to climb gigantic spider webs that connected every town around the world. I had heard about people trying to dig holes to China—who knew they had it all wrong?
I was at first disappointed when I discovered the web was invisible and inside my computer, but my disappointment was soon replaced by glee when Steve introduced us to America Online. He helped us set up usernames and we'd dial in and wait for the voice of God to tell us we had mail. I soon decided this was way cooler than a giant underground spider web.
"I actually spent quite a bit [of money] to bring internet to the schools to even give dial-up to all you students," Steve said during our recent conversation, reflecting on the early days of online access and how we hoped it would change how kids learn. "But networks were important and AOL was here before the internet. When we were in dial-up speed times, we could hardly imagine real live instantaneous things. But pre-internet, AOL had chat rooms which were kind of like the social web. You could get into rooms and categories you wanted to. As far as what it would lead to in the future, I just assumed computers would become more and more commonplace in school. All the schools were getting labs."
Learning Lessons in Online Privacy (With a Little Help From Jonathan Taylor Thomas)
Once I realized that we could technically connect to anyone or anything, I immediately wanted to know if my childhood celebrity crush and Home Improvement kid star Jonathan Taylor Thomas would come hang out with me. Surely, he had the internet. So naturally I emailed him at JTT@aol.com telling him how much I loved him on the show and that I know he was probably really busy but if he came to visit, I'd show him my Pog collection. I gave him my address and phone number just in case.
Two weeks later my parents received a very polite typed letter from a dentist in Des Moines telling them they should monitor their daughter's activity online as she was giving out their personal information to total strangers. And there I had my first lesson in internet privacy at the age of 10.
Woz's Legacy as a Computer Teacher
Of the 30 kids in our class, at least eight of us have gone into careers in technology. One of my former classmates, Dan Leis, said that Steve teaching us binary and networks like the long-dead Token ring, inspired him to go into tech. I have no such memory of that part of the curriculum and can only assume that was being taught when I snuck out to play "Truth or Dare" in the greenhouse behind our classroom. Another classmate, Bianca Yacoub, who now works at Apple in California, mentioned how he taught our class in her interview. Yacoub had a vision impairment due to albinism, and had a hard time seeing the font on our laptops, so Steve went to her house and installed a huge screen so she could see the lessons better.
My most vivid memory from the class was a conversation I had with Steve. It was no secret that I was not the star pupil of that class. I found computers to be fun, but the technical aspect was lost on me pretty early on. One time Steve caught me zoning off and was instantly plagued with guilt. After class he came up to me and asked how I was liking the class. I replied with a cheerful, "Good!" but followed up with a confession that I didn't love learning about computers the way some kids did. He just smiled and asked me what I did like.
I admitted that generally, school was hard for me, but I loved art and in his class I liked the software that let you build things, like Sim City. He said those things were important, too, and that when he was younger, he didn't like school much either. He was kind and nonjudgemental, and let me just be me about it.
Read More: 2001: An Apple Odyssey
In our recent conversation, when I shared that memory with Steve, he chuckled and then added, "Why not let young students go in the directions they want to? Let them go off and do what they like to do and don't force them to be going at the same speed as somebody else. Most of school might as well just be daycare anyway. If people have something in their heart, you shouldn't slow them down...I liked being a super geek, but I definitely never pushed my values on other people."
At the end of the year, we were all given a hard copy of Steve's biography, Steve Wozniak, Inventor of the Apple Computer, by Martha E. Kendall. The kids awarded free computers had sparkly star stickers on their back page. I opened mine flipped to the back, where in place of a star, there was a note that read, "Go build great things. Best, Steve."
Looking back now, I think "The Woz" being something of a tech God was lost on us, as were many things when we were 10. I think we all just thought of him as Sara's cool, super smart dad who made computers. We also thought it was cool that another girl's dad was a firefighter, and that our class pet rabbit would eat pretty much anything you fed it. We were kids. Regardless, he gave us the freedom to be who we were, to discover our own passions, and defy imposed normative structures, whether they be from the confines of a school curriculum or parents who wouldn't let us eat Mickey D's.
Syambra Moitozo is Associate Producer for Daily VICE.
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