MidReal Story

History's Code: A Journey into Technology

Scenario: New semester begins, a history major student enrolls in a programming class
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New semester begins, a history major student enrolls in a programming class
I’ve never set foot in the computer science lab before.
I’ve been in and out of the history building a thousand times, up the marble steps and through the grand double doors, past the paintings of old bearded men and massive Roman columns.
But today I’ve come to the other side of campus, to a building that looks more like an office building than a school, where all the windows are tinted and the walls are made of gray concrete.
The only things that make it look like a classroom are the ivy-covered walls and the squeaky bikes locked up outside.
The door swings shut behind me, the click echoing in the silent hallway.
I start to doubt my decision.
I signed up for this class on a whim, after a conversation with my best friend, Alex.
He’s been my rock since I moved here for college, three years ago.
He’s the reason I know how to get to my classes and haven’t flunked out yet, because he’s always been there to help me study and make sure I’m keeping up with my work.
We met during freshman orientation, and have been inseparable ever since.
Or maybe it was that he was drawn to me, because I was wandering around with a map upside down, looking totally lost.
He’s like that: he sees someone struggling, and he has to step in and help them out.
It’s one of the things I love most about him.
And it was Alex who convinced me to take this leap into the unknown.
He’s a computer science major here at NYU, and he’s also obsessed with all things tech.
His apartment is full of gadgets and gizmos that he’s bought online, or scavenged from dumpsters behind Best Buy.
He spends his weekends taking apart old computers and trying to put them back together again.
When he talks about programming or algorithms, his eyes light up, and he bounces on the balls of his feet like an overexcited puppy.
You’d think it would be annoying, but it’s actually pretty cute.
And it’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm.
It was Alex who helped me realize that studying history wasn’t going to lead me anywhere after graduation, except maybe back home or working at Starbucks.
He’s the one who convinced me that I could do this, that I could learn how to program, even though it’s completely different from anything I’ve ever done before.
So here I am, about to start my first day of class, and I have no idea what I’m doing.
I turn the knob and push open the door.
The lab is a large, windowless room with fluorescent lights and air conditioning, which hums softly in the background.
In stark contrast to my history classes, there are no ancient texts or passionate discussions here.
Instead, the room is filled with rows of modern workstations and flickering screens.
There’s not a book in sight.
I pick a desk at the back, near the wall, and take a seat.
The plastic chair is hard and uncomfortable, but I make myself at home, pulling out my laptop and plugging it in.
I watch as the screen flickers to life, feeling like a fish out of water.
I have no idea what I’m doing here, or what the future holds for me in this strange new world.
My phone is ringing. Alex is calling me
I have no idea how long it takes for my phone to stop ringing, but by the time I’m done fumbling with it, my laptop is finally up and running, and it’s time for class to start.
Alex sent me a bunch of links last night, with instructions on how to set up my computer and install all the software we’ll be using for class.
It was a lot, and it took me a while, but I think I have everything working now.
I open up the first link and click on it, but nothing happens.
I try again, and again, but still nothing.
I’m about to throw my laptop out the window when I remember that he also told me to check the system requirements for each program, and make sure my computer met them.
I go back and click on the link for the sixth time, and then scroll down the page, my eyes scanning over lines of code that look like gibberish to me.
I have no idea what I’m looking for here, and it’s too late now for me to do anything about it anyway.
Just then, I hear someone call my name from across the room.
I look up and see Alex standing by the door, waving at me.
He must have just gotten here; he always shows up at the last possible second.
That boy has absolutely no sense of time—probably because he spends most of his life staring at his computer screen and forgetting that other people exist.
I wave back at him, half-smiling.
He starts walking over, picking his way between the desks and computers with that shuffling stride of his, his shirt untucked and his hair a mess, like he just rolled out of bed.
It makes me smile; he always looks so disheveled, like he can’t be bothered with his appearance—unlike most guys here at NYU, who are constantly checking their hair in car windows and fixing their collars every five seconds.
But Alex isn’t most guys.
He’s sweet and smart and funny, and he doesn’t care what other people think of him.
He’s not afraid to be himself, even if that means wearing mismatched socks or quoting Star Wars in public.
He knows who he is and he accepts himself completely—and he accepts me too, which is one of the things I love most about him.
Alex is standing in front of me now.
He leans down and gives me a quick hug, like we haven’t seen each other in weeks.
I can smell the coffee on his breath and the shampoo in his hair.
“Hey,” he says.
“Did you get everything set up?”
I shake my head and show him the screen.
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
He takes the computer from me and sits down in the desk next to mine.
I watch as his fingers dance across the keyboard, opening files and clicking on links.
I have no idea what he’s doing, but it looks like magic to me.
Alex is a wizard with computers.
To him, programming is like writing poetry; the code is his language and the keyboard is his paintbrush.
He can make the computer do just about anything he wants it to do—just by typing a few lines of code.
To me, programming might as well be ancient Greek; it makes absolutely no sense to me at all.
But Alex has been trying to teach me anyway.
I don’t know why he bothers; it seems like a lost cause to me.
But he’s patient and kind and totally in love with his craft.
It’s nice that he wants to share it with me.
A few minutes later, Alex pushes the computer back toward me and I see that everything is up and running now.
“There you go,” he says.
“I got it all set up for you.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“Probably fail,” he says, grinning.
“Don’t worry, Em, I’ve got your back on this one.”
I feel a little better now that the computer is working properly.
I take a deep breath and remind myself that I can do this.
If Alex thinks I’m capable of learning how to program, then maybe I am.
The professor walks into the room then, carrying a thick stack of papers in his hand.
He sets them down on the front desk and pulls out a pen from his shirt pocket.
He has thinning hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and he talks with a thick accent that I can’t quite place.
He looks very serious and very smart—I can tell that this class is going to be a challenge.
He starts writing on the whiteboard, drawing lines and arrows and boxes, explaining the essential concepts of HTML and CSS.
As he talks, I feel a creeping sense of unease, like I don’t belong here.
The words are familiar to me, of course—I’ve heard Alex talk about them a thousand times—but they’re foreign to me too, like some kind of secret code that only the smartest people in the world know how to crack.
I don’t have any idea what he’s talking about; it might as well be Mandarin for all I know.
But Alex is listening intently, his eyes narrowed and his head cocked to one side.
He looks totally absorbed in what the professor is saying, like he understands every word of it.
His eyes are bright and alert, like he’s watching some kind of amazing magic show, and he nods along with each new concept, like he gets it.
It makes me smile, to see him so happy and so alive.
I just wish I was like that too.
But I’m not; I’m lost and confused and completely out of my depth.
A few minutes later, the professor finishes his lecture and starts passing out the syllabus for the class.
There are two textbooks we need to read, a series of problem sets we need to complete, and a final project we need to turn in at the end of the semester—a simple website that uses all the elements we’ve learned in class.
It sounds impossible to me, like climbing Mount Everest or sailing around the world.
I have no idea how I’m going to do this, but I know that I have to find a way.
My entire future is riding on this class; if I can’t pull it off, I’ll never be able to make my parents understand that I need to change majors—and I’ll never be able to convince myself that I made the right decision by coming here in the first place.
I look over at Alex, who is already flipping through the pages of the syllabus, making a mental list of everything we need to do in the next few weeks.
He looks absolutely certain that we can do this—and he looks absolutely determined too.
I take a deep breath and remind myself that I have him by my side.
I can do this too, right?
Alex watches over my shoulder as I work on my first assignment, the corners of his mouth twitching into a smile as he sees me struggling with the code.
“Having fun?”
he asks, his voice thick with amusement.
“Don’t you have some code of your own to write?”
I say, feeling my face flush with embarrassment.
He chuckles, the sound deep and warm, like a rumbling engine, as he pushes his glasses up on the bridge of his nose.
“Not when I can watch you do it instead,” he says.
“I’m getting front-row seats to the show.”
I roll my eyes at him, but I can’t help but smile as I try to figure out how this works.
This is my first time working with Python—the programming language we’re learning in class—and so far, it’s been a little bit intimidating.
But Alex has been here with me the whole time, helping me make sense of it all, breaking down the concepts into smaller, more manageable parts.
There’s no way I’d be able to do this without him.
The assignment seems simple enough when I read the instructions, but so far, it’s been anything but easy.
I have to write a program that calculates the area of a circle, using the input from the user as the radius.
It doesn’t sound too hard, but I’m having trouble putting all the pieces together in the right order.
Part of me wishes that I could just write this on paper instead of on the computer—I don’t like the way it beeps at me every time I make a mistake—but I know that I need to learn the basics first.
And besides, if I do this right, then I’ll never have to do another math problem again.
Alex watches me for a few minutes in silence, his dark eyes tracing the words on the screen as I type.
Then he leans over and points at one of the lines of code, his finger almost touching the screen as he looks up at me with an amused expression on his face.
“What’s this?”
he asks, his voice gently mocking.
I try to read it out loud, but it doesn’t make any sense to me.
It’s a bunch of letters and numbers strung together in strange patterns that I can’t quite decipher.
“It’s… um, it’s importing something,” I say.
“Good,” he says.
“It’s importing the math functions that you need for your program.”
“Oh,” I say, feeling my face flush with embarrassment again.
This is exactly why I don’t like doing this in front of him.
Alex knows that I’m not very good at math—it was always my worst subject in school—and I’m worried that he’s going to think less of me if I have trouble with this assignment.
But to my relief, he doesn’t say anything about my confusion.
Instead, he just nods and smiles at me, like he’s proud of me for figuring out that much on my own.
“So what do you think the next line does?”
he asks, leaning over to point at it with his finger again.
“It’s using the math function,” I say, squinting at it.
“It’s… taking the value of pi and… using it in this program?”
“Exactly,” he says, his smile widening a little bit as he looks at me.
We sit in silence for a few moments, as I try to work up my courage to ask him for help.
I know that he’s been doing this for years, and that he’s an expert at it, but I still can’t quite bring myself to believe that I’ll ever be able to understand it.
This feels like trying to learn a whole new language, and so far, it’s not going very well.
But when I glance over at Alex, at his messy hair and his glasses, and see how patient he’s being with me, I decide that I might as well give it another try.
“So… what do you think the rest of these lines do?”
I ask, pointing at the screen again.
He reads them over one by one, explaining to me how each function works.
It’s much easier when he does it this way, talking me through it step by step, instead of just writing it out for me like he did last time.
“Okay,” he says when he’s finished reading over it all.
“So now you just need to write a little bit more code to prompt the user for input, and you should be good to go.”
“Right,” I say, nodding as I try to remember how exactly that works.
It seems like a lot to keep track of all at once—the functions, the values, and now the user input—but somehow, with Alex’s help, it all starts to come together in my mind.
Maybe I can do this after all.
“Do you want me to write it for you?”
he asks, glancing back and forth between me and the screen as if he can tell that I’m feeling overwhelmed.
“No,” I say quickly.
“I think I can do it.”
And then, just like that, the magic disappears.
As soon as he starts to type out his code on his own computer—his fingers flying across the keyboard in a blur—I lose my train of thought completely.
It’s hard to concentrate on my own work when he’s sitting right next to me, so close that his knee keeps brushing up against mine as he types.
But it’s even harder to concentrate now that I can see the way that his long fingers move, the way that his eyes flicker back and forth over the screen as he writes the code.
I don’t know how he makes it look so easy, but I guess that’s why he’s a computer science major and I’m not.
So when my phone vibrates with a message from Facebook—telling me that the site has been blocked on the school network due to an ongoing investigation into a security breach—I jump at the excuse to stop working and turn my attention back to him.
“Why are you on Facebook in the middle of class?”
he asks, looking over at me with an amused expression on his face.
“I’ll have you know that I was working very hard,” I say, sticking my tongue out at him.
“You’re just jealous because you’re not popular like me.”
“Oh, is that it?”
he asks, pretending to pout.