“Starting now,” the teacher said, standing in front of a class of sixth grade students, “you must turn in your papers typed.”
A number of students smiled at this. They preferred typing. It was faster, they felt, and it gave them more time on the computer. I’m doing homework, they would tell their parents, as they alt-tabbed between their paper, conversations, and games.
Others were less pleased. Some typed slowly. The keyboard and their fingers didn’t fit together as well as pen and paper. They found the blinking cursor more intimidating, a flashing reminder that they had yet to write a single word.
A few were like Joan. She loved to type. She even loved being on the computer. But her family only had one, and it was old and finnicky. It ran some programs fine, but there was no predicting which ones. Her internet connection was the same way.
Another issue was the cost. She didn’t have the program her teacher expected, and her parents worked too hard to have the money to buy it. She wasn’t the only kid in this situation, nor was she even the only one in her class, but they had all learned a long time ago not to talk about what they, or their parents, could afford.
“This assignment is to be two papers, double spaced, Times New Roman, size 12. Answer this question about The Giver: Is the community better off with or without memories?”
The teacher felt the temperature of the room. Most of the students were tired of The Giver and anything that had to do with it. She had tried to stir their interest in the book, but it’s hard to make anyone love someone they’re forced to do.
Joan was, this time, an exception. She loved the book, and she couldn’t wait to write about it. But she loathed having to wait until a parent took her to the library, knowing that they, not into books or computers, would rather be somewhere else.
When she first went with her dad, he paced the entire time. On the ride home, she asked why he didn’t sit down and read a book. To her surprise, the thought hadn’t occurred to him.
The next time, he looked at a book for a few moments, rubbing his eyes all throughout. His eyebrows furrowed deep enough to leave a permanent indentation, or at least that’s what Joan feared. She felt a sense of relief when he soon put the book back down. On the way our, she pointed him toward the magazines.
When they returned for her next paper, he picked up a few periodicals from the shelf. He flipped through them with all the interest of a student bored enough to pass the time by looking through their textbook.
If Joan’s mom took her, she would spend the entire time outside on her phone. That wasn’t so bad. It was the way her mom talked to herself on the ride there and back that Joan loathed. There was simply so much to get done, and while her mother didn’t intend to pass on guilt, that’s what she did.
But the worst was when, yet again, Joan had to explain why she couldn’t do what she needed on the computer they had.
“Why did we spend so much money on the thing, then?” her dad would ask. The computer was old and used when they got it. The seller hadn’t ripped them off, at least not intentionally. The computer was her son’s old thing, and he had bought himself a new one when he went to college. His mom didn’t know much about what the thing was worth, so she asked for a couple hundred bucks. Better someone else get use out of it before it actually did become useless.
The operating system was outdated, and newer programs required more memory than this PC was intended for. Even if someone bought her a copy of what they used at school, the software would run so slowly that it would still be faster to go to the library and type her assignment there.
When Joan got home from school, she heard an argument in the kitchen. Her dad, who usually wasn’t home from work at this time, was saying something about his truck needing another part. Her mom said he should stop buying pieces of junk and buy something that actually ran.
“With what money?” her dad said. He repeated this line so often that Joan and her mom would sometimes imitate him behind his back. If he were on a sitcom, this would be his catchphrase.
Joan snuck by and dropped off her books by the computer. She pressed the button to boot it up and walked away to use the bathroom. When she returned, she sat down and waited a few moments for the log in screen to appear.
After she had typed in her password, listened to the static that preceded getting online, and opened up a web browser, she began her frantic search.
How to speed up a slow program?
How to stop this program from crashing?
And then, finally, Is there a free alternative?
The answer, turned out, was yes.
Joan began to download something called AbiWord, then walked away while the computer pulled down the bits. She was eager to read up more about the program, to see if it would actually do what she needed, but that would slow down the download. Better to try it out for herself.
Joan’s parents quieted down a little as she made her appearance in the kitchen. Dinner wasn’t ready, which she already knew, so she placed peanut butter and jelly on the counter. When she was done, she retreated to her room and picked up from she had left off in the novel she was reading the night before. A boy on a flying broom was making a sharp downward dive toward a small golden ball with wings. She made it as far as an encounter with a three-headed dog before she remembered to go check back on the computer.
The download was 95% percent done. A bathroom break later, it was ready. The installer opened quickly, and soon the program was on her computer. Joan found the icon on her desktop and double-clicked. Just like that, it was open. Her heart raced.
Hesitantly, Joan began to type her name.
The letters appeared and the cursor moved with each press. Feeling emboldened, she typed an entire sentence.
Again, there was no waiting for the screen to show what she had typed. She squealed.
Joan pulled out The Giver and got to work. A community needs memories, she began to write.
She would write these words again, years later, in the essay portion of her college application. She had discovered many more programs like AbiWord by then. She had even replaced the operating system on her old computer, and each PC she had used since, with one that was freely available online.
Turned out, this was the way software used to be back before she was born. Thankfully, someone remembered.