An 11-year-old asks her grandfather how computer games are made and he tells her they’re created by programmers “using complex mathematical code.” The next thing he knows, she’s learning Python on her own, and getting her chums involved too.
The Heart of Linux
“Grandpa, can you fix my computer?”
My granddaughter’s face beamed back at me via the Google Hangout she triggered. She bit her lip while I finished the task I had been doing when she showed up on my screen.
“Depends baby. What did you do to break it?”
I met her gaze via the webcam and she wiggled uncomfortably, weighing the different ways she might phrase her answer.
“Well, I was sitting on the floor and when I stood up, my foot got tangled up in the cord plugged into the sockets on my desk and the black power thingy fell and broke my screen.”
Actually, my daughter had already texted me about this and told me how much Karen had cried because she broke the laptop grandpa bought her for graduating on the honor roll. She had what my daughter called “a Karen Moment.” Not breaking the stuff their grandpas buy them is important to 12-year-old-girls.
I didn’t chide or scold. I told her to tell her mom to mail the laptop to me and I would fix it. She could pick it up when she came to visit us next Sunday. As I promised, she left with it last Sunday, happy as a 12-year-old child can be and she promised not to break it again. I kissed her on the head and told her that was fine. Little does she know that her grandpa would charge the gates of hell with a bucket of water for her.
So let me slide back a year or so from today. My oldest granddaughter, Karen, and her mom and dad visited, and my granddaughter wanted to know if she could play some games on my computer. I imagined that she would go online and play stuff on Miniclip or some such place. With my parental filters set on paranoid, I felt comfortable letting her take the bridge and drive the starship for a while.
All the grownups sat in the living room, talking about stuff people talk about when they haven’t seen each other for a while. I, with my electrolarynx, fairly well stayed silent for most of the conversation. People not used to being exposed to someone speaking with the device spend most of their time asking the person next to them, “Whaddid he say?”
I’m already self-conscious enough. I don’t feel like breaking out the crayons and drawing the person pictures. So I found my attention wandering away from the conversation and while looking at a TV with the sound turned down low I heard a familiar sound. It was a sound I hear on a biweekly basis. It was the sound of a railgun firing.
I strode toward my home office space and opened the door to see my then 11-year-old granddaughter immersed in online competition in Nexuiz.
“Hey kiddo. you’re in a place you shouldn’t be. Log off that game honey.”
Karen was a bit befuddled as to why she shouldn’t be playing online games. I took her place at the monitor and scrolled through the dialog between players. While it wasn’t exactly a place she should have been, it wasn’t at all crude or strung along with foul language. I loaded up the game so she could play the bots, told her to stay off the network and she agreed.
But later, just prior to their leaving to return to Killeen, Karen asked me, “How are those games made anyway?”
I squeezed her hand and told her that computer programmers created those games using complex mathematical code. She shook her head and seemed satisfied with that answer.
It wasn’t a week later that my daughter texted me and asked if I had told Karen she could learn how to program computers. I told her that she might have construed what I said as such, but outright? No. I did not tell her that. It wasn’t an hour later that my granddaughter’s face showed up in a Hangout session request.
“Grandpa, I’m learning Python.”
There was no “aren’t you proud of me” anticipation, just a flat statement. Her father, Steven. who is now retired from the Army, worked in counterintelligence, decrypting email and text messages between key places in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. He has a pretty good handle on things of this nature and was as surprised as I was when Karen asked him to buy her the “Python for Dummies” book on Amazon.
He and I spent a while this past Sunday, talking about her keen interest in programming and computer science in general. Linux is no stranger in their home. Their kids are not allowed on a Windows computer but they don’t seem to mind. Even Steven, who needs Windows in his civilian job, runs it via VMware.
What had started as a summer boredom project has spread to many of the kids in their neighborhood. As many as eight youngsters between the ages of nine and twelve are meeting at my granddaughter’s house, and under supervision take turns on the laptop and dual monitor desktop her dad setup in the dining room. They are so way past “hello world” that most everyone at the stage’s edge are somewhat amazed to hear the kids talk about compilers and shell scripts.
Most of the younger kids are watching the older kids for now, but by the middle of the summer, some of them will be given login privileges to learn on their own. We are now looking for someone in their area to come in and facilitate one of these weekly sessions and give them guidance and confidence in what they are doing.
When you expose a kid to alternative ways of operating a computer, it’s really a crap shoot as to where they will take it. And sure, it may be piddling away the hours on Facebook or other social arenas, but every now and then one of them is going to be curious about how someone makes a game work, how a person or character moves. What wizardry is this that makes those things happen?
Karen is looking forward to high school, where they teach computer science and language. Somehow, I think she will be a good deal ahead of her peers. But hey…that might just be a proud grandfather talking. You never know.
What I do know is that the only limitations kids have are the ones we set for them.
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue