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Plastic report covers and vague spaces

The story of a middle-school book report that still haunts me

I have these weird dreams like everything is the wrong size and somehow because the sizes don’t make sense, my whole world is wrong and I’m going to die.

Or at least it feels that way until I wake up, drenched in sweat.

These dreams usually preempt a cold, or happen when I’m trying to wrap my head around some concept or problem that I was unable to solve in my waking hours.

I remember distinctly having one of these dreams in middle school—I think it was in the seventh grade.

We took a “tech” class—it was taught in a room that was dusty, full of band saws, and a giant oven that could melt metal so we could make leaden refrigerator decorations for our parents. Lots of the old “wood shop” tools sat there, unused, while we tinkered with a hydroponics system where fish shit literally fed basil plants, and vice versa. Lovely symbiosis, really.

On this particular day, sitting in the industrial-style desks in the front of the classroom, we were learning about computers. We had to write papers about how computers worked… and I was going to fail.

Hence the sweaty, confusing dream the night before.

By all counts, I’d always been a good student. I’m not sure if it was out of the fear of my parents’ punishments for a bad grade, or because I was genuinely interested in what I was learning—but I’d always been a pretty good student.

Which is why today, I had sweaty palms and a pit in my stomach as I sat, grasping the plastic cover on my freshly printed report, waiting to present to the class.

You see, I didn’t understand my report. I did the research, I regurgitated, I cited my sources—but I didn’t understand a word of it. And I figured the teacher—a man whom I desperately needed to impress—would find me out.

I had been awake late into the night before, pouring over the library books I had checked out about computers. (This was, believe it or not, before the internet was terribly useful for doing research.) I remember the cover of the big book, though I can’t remember the name. The hard cardboard was wrapped in a printed laminate. The top third was a redish-orange gradient with white lettering (probably Helvetica) that had a black outline. The lower two-thirds of the book were a closeup photograph of the inside of some industrial computer, with red and orange wires sticking out of a circuit board. The title probably read something like “Inside Computers” in large type, and a second line of “Circuits, Power and Chips” in a smaller size.

The memory of this cover is burned into my mind because I remember how scared I was of it—of what it represented: this marked the first time I had really tried to learn something, and just utterly failed at any practical comprehension. I mean, I really tried, and the more I read, the less I seemed to understand.

I had used computers since early elementary school. My dad had an old desktop that could boot in DOS, or in Windows 3.0. He taught me a few simple DOS commands so I could open pac-man, tetris and some blocky golf game just by typing into the blackish-blue terminal window.

I was generally helpful to the teachers and other students in the computer labs— I could type pretty fast, I totally understood how to operate the old Macintosh machines that the school had, and I was pretty handy at formatting with the word processor.

But I had no clue how any of them really worked.

There was this digital stuff—software, which I got. Somehow it existed in this other stuff that I could touch—the hardware, which I got too. But how did the hardware make the software work? How did the software get onto the hardware in the first place? What do you type into the terminal to make the CPU do stuff before there’s an operating system on the thing?

I understood that there was a logic board, a monitor, a disk drive (floppy at the time). I understood that there was a power source, and a cooling fan and a hard drive and memory. Yes, there was a difference between RAM and the hard drive’s storage capacity. There was a processor.

But how did they actually work together?

I just couldn’t wrap my head around how any of the stuff I could see on the monitor actually happened because of the stuff I could see inside the computer. I knew it had something to do with electricity, with ones and zeros. But it was all just too much. The book with the red-orange gradient didn’t explain it—it skirted around the subject and used words that I’d have to look up in the dictionary (a physical copy of Merriam-Webster), which was frustratingly non-technical in it’s definitions—if the terms were even there at all, and the circular chase of other, increasingly confusing books, was too much!

* * *

There I was, gripping my sweaty little hands around this plastic-covered book report sleeve—the kind with the slip-on plastic rod that binds it together. It had a cover with my name and the title of the report on it.

The teacher called me to the front and I looked at him, straight in the eyes. He knew. He knew by seeing straight into my soul and reading my thoughts.

I thought I might pee my pants.

I slipped off the metal industrial chair and made my way to the front of the classroom to present my findings.

And then I think I blacked out.

Not the fall-to-the-floor-passed-out black-out, just the kind where you’re in a state where your body is working and your mouth is talking, but you have no idea what you’re saying. Like when you’ve been driving down the highway, listening to the radio, and have no idea how you got close to your exit, because you can’t recall what happened for the past twenty minutes.

But there I was, at my exit. My presentation was over—I knew this, because there were feeble claps from the classroom—the polite kind where everyone gets a clap just for participating.

The teacher turned to me and said something like, “wow Alex, that was incredibly detailed stuff. I didn’t even know some of that—I had no idea you were so into computers.” It was kind of mocking, leading. Not snide, but like he was digging at some bigger meaning. Setting me up. Confronting me with the fact that I had lied, or missed some obvious truth—gotten it wrong.

Oh shit. Here it comes, he’s going to ask me the big one. The big question—how do the ones and zeros really get into the computer chips? Shit!

“Does anyone have any questions for Alex?” He said, turning to the class.

A sea of disinterested faces—propped up on hands or leaning on desks.

“Nope? Okay, thanks Alex.”

I stared at him for a second, he smiled, and I made my way back to my desk. I think I looked down to see the crotch of my pants to make sure I didn’t pee.

I don’t know what any other students said during their presentations—all I could think was that my presentation was so bad that he didn’t even bother asking me any questions. He must have just been utterly disappointed in me. I let him down. I screwed up. Maybe I could say something to him after class to make it right? No, there was no time—we were on the far side of the building and I’d have to run to get to my other class in time for next period. Maybe I could come find him after school? I didn’t know what to do. No, I have to face this like a man. I resigned myself to just waiting to see what happened, taking the “F” like I deserved.

We all left our papers on his desk that day as we left, knowing that they’d be there when we got back the next week—waiting in a stack with a red letter inscribed inside a red circle, on the inside front cover.

I had the dream again that night. The weird dream where nothing is really tangible, but I know the things are the wrong sizes and they don’t fit anywhere because they are vaguely the wrong sizes.

I must have had that dream every night that week.

It progressed until I started to see the cover of the book I had read from cover to cover, but completely failed to understand. The little wires poking out of the circuit board, the little indicator lights. I started to see the tangle of the wires, the flashing of the lights; hearing the beeping of the machine and the “tick, tick, tick” of the processing happening. They were all the wrong sizes and shapes and blended together and there was no stopping any of it and it was too much to comprehend—a giant expanse where nothing made sense and because of that I was loosing some big test and was in earthly trouble.

I didn’t sleep much that week.

* * *

The day had come. We were back in tech class and were going to move on to the next topic, but before we did, he was going to pass back our graded papers. He looked at the stack in his hand, one by one, handing them back to the students in the classroom who immediately turned to look at the inside front cover.

Every paper that came to the top of the stack with the plastic cover and a blue plastic binding would make me freeze. I waited for the look of disappointment on his face as he saw my name and silently shook his head—perhaps he saw the red ink bleed through from the back of it, in a shape that was vaguely a reversed letter “F”.

Finally, he slipped it off the top of the stack, made his way to my table, and handed it to me. I couldn’t look at him.

I placed it on my desk, and slipped my fingers inside the first page, unsure of what to do and how to react when I saw the grade.

I thought, maybe, just maybe… that he’d had mercy, because I had been a good student, and maybe he gave me a “C” or a “D” instead of the dreaded “F” that I deserved.

I looked down at my pants again—old habits die hard.

I slipped back the plastic and the front cover of the report that was statically clinging to it… and…

A.

An A?

A big red circle with a big red A in the middle.

Hmph.

Well, I couldn’t rightly tell him that I felt bad that he gave me an A that I didn’t really deserve. That would be calling him out and questioning his integrity. Best to just ask him something vague—something about, what he thought of the report.

So after class that day, which was on a lesson I don’t think I really paid attention to at the time and has long since been forgotten, I decided to risk being late to my next class on the other side of the building and stick around while the other students filed out.

“Mr. C? Can I ask you a question?”

A nod.

“What did you think about… my… um… my report. On the computers?”

“Why, is there a mistake in your grade? I gave you an “A”, right?”

“Well, yeah, yes. Yes, an A. But I was just wondering what you thought about it, if you had any questions or anything?”

“No, not really. Most of the stuff you wrote about is really over my head. I thought it was a great amount of detail, far beyond what I would expect out of middle school work. Really good job. Did your parents help you out with it? Do they do things with computers?” He was being earnest.

Really good work? What? My parents? Huh? Wait… over his head?

I must have just stood there silent for a while because he said, perplexed, “Alex, is everything okay?”

“Um, no, they… they didn’t really help me. I mean, my dad works with computers—he’s a programmer. But he didn’t go to school for it, and he does stuff with code, but I don’t think he really knows about the circuits and stuff, but yeah, he’s helped my get into computers.”

“Yeah, it seems like you’re good with this stuff. Are you thinking about pursuing more computer classes in high school? Or college?”

“Um, no, well, I don’t know… I’m not really good at math, and I’ve heard you have to be good at math for that stuff.”

“Oh, okay.” He said, looking back to his desk and shuffling some papers and pens. “Well, good job anyways.”

“So, everything was okay with the paper?”

“Yep, good job.” He seemed a little confused and annoyed at this point.

“Uh… okay. Um, thanks. Just wanted to check. I have to get to class, see… see you next week.”

I turned to walk down the long hall. The old painted cinderblocks and the cracked tiles on the floor framed my perspective as I made my way past the open classroom doors. The smell of chlorine and sweat emanated from the pool and gym on my left.

That blackout feeling of having gotten somewhere without really remembering how you get there sank in as I turned the corner, scurrying past other students, running to get to class on time.

All I could think was how he said “over my head”. The stuff was “over my head”.

Over his head.

I still wonder if he knew that it was over mine too.

Fin.