I was twelve years old. My brother had just relinquished control over the precious family computer, after a lengthy 90 minute lesson in child-hood restraint. I was stationed in the living room, seated upon a spinning desk chair. Wee! I spun around once, twice, overjoyed. Then, focused, I would click on the start menu, searching for Notepad. Once loaded, I opened a file I had been working on, which described my proud collection of Ty Beanie Babies. The file was written in HTML, an abbreviation for hypertext markup language, the native language of the internet.
I’d fashioned a page full of tables, with rows and columns, borrowed images from the Ty website, and colorful descriptions of my toys. Then, the fun part came. I’d enter my credentials into AOL, ensure that the telephone wasn’t in use, and hit connect. The computer would transform into a possessed robot, communicating with outside forces beyond my understanding in a barrage of beeps and clicks. Finally, silence… success! The telephone would not ring on that night. And then, a stranger’s voice would comment on the status of my email inbox. I’d set my browser to w3schools. om and get to work.
My goal was to teach myself the language of the 21st century. At the time my public school education offered only typing instruction, which I had already mastered and so, in boredom, I was left to fend for myself. My friends had other interests, like after school sports, which I failed miserably at and found no joy in. I was an intelligent and introverted student, preferring more humble evening activities like reading and playing video games. My brother was a talented strategist and had taken quickly to complex video games of war and conquering.
My interests were less tactical and more creatively motivated, looking after my digital ranch full of digital horses, and painting colorful pictures in KidPix. Initially, it was my father’s love of computing languages and software that peaked my interest in the way things worked behind the scenes. He explained that my beloved Ty website was built entirely out of code: a strategic organization of letters and symbols with specific meanings. It was like being handed the key to a magical city. I would browse the internet for pages with dazzling effects like moving images (GIFs) and buttons that changed when my cursor hung over them.
I would analyze the bones that held together these details within the skeleton of the HTML code and attempt to decipher their logic. I enjoyed a challenging puzzle and so my appreciation for the web intensified. On one of many trips to a local Barnes and Noble book store I deviated from my usual route directly to the young adult section in the back of the store. Instead, I lingered near a small book shelf labelled Computing. The bookshelves loomed high above me and the store smelled of fresh ink and paper. A man approximately two feet taller than me (and many years my senior) scanned the pages of a dictionary sized book titled C+ For Dummies.
I felt out of place, in a land of knowledge that did not belong to me. The books were thick, the covers lacked illustrations, and the topics were foreign. My cheeks burned and I became acutely aware of my age. I was a mere peasant accidently stumbled into a dragon’s lair without any armor. I continued quickly past the section as if lost and merely searching for my dad. I stayed close, however, pretending to examine a Cliff Notes display at the end of the aisle. I was researching an imaginary book report when my dad spotted me and walked over, a few new books tucked close in hand.
I told him I was still looking around, and could we please go together down this aisle, maybe it had something fun? My plan worked, the man was gone, and the forbidden section caught my dad’s interest. While he browsed some of the offerings I feigned disinterest as I skimmed the categories. “Ugh, Dad, why do you have to drag me along in to such boring sections? ” my cool exterior emoted. I saw words like Java… Python… Perl… out of the corner of my eye, and then I saw it. The letters H-T-M-L printed boldly in white on black. I groped randomly at the selection of books and pulled out a heavy one, almost 3 inches thick.
Paging through the book I was at a loss, it was complex, so I turned to the first pages. I recognized some words: head, title, body. Maybe I could learn something from this book after all. The book was a thorough primer and I asked my dad if he would get it for me. “You know, maybe I need a new hobby? ” It was a success. After school, I would be delivered home by bus 30 minutes later than my brother. He would have settled possessively in to his superior post at the computer and I would resign myself to the television or get started on my homework.
It was a constant battle in the beginning. The words “just a few more minutes,” were frequently heard in our household. Timers would be set, and when they rang one of us would, most begrudgingly, save our progress and close our programs. Later on my dad would buy a new computer and I would take possession of the older model. Instead of hand-me-down clothing, I got hand-me-down technology. I only ever cracked open that thick tome on HTML a few times in the first few weeks of teaching myself to code, preferring to find more specific information with a search engine.
This allowed me to gloss over any content that was irrelevant to my early designs. Most of my pages never got uploaded to the internet, but I loved to constantly tweak and customize them. As I got older they became increasingly complex and I discovered my love of blogs. These blogs were written like diaries by average people, most older than me with varying degrees of personal details included. I was able to see into the minds of my older peers and felt included in a secret society. There were only two types of people in my world: those who knew how to code and those who did not.
It was then that I realized the kind of power the internet provided me. I had access to information that allowed me to make educated decisions for myself. If I wanted to learn how to build something I was reliant on no one but myself, limited only by what was available on the internet at the time. At a crucial point in my life, when most kids are likely to boldly declare their individuality, I found a creative outlet. I didn’t need to act out in defiance, because I could always channel my feelings in to my web designs.
I could construct my own web experience that reflected who I was and what I cared about. I was able to carve a place for myself where I had once just been a follower, a child who did as she was told, and avoided any unnecessary attention. I could pursue topics that actually interested me, something I couldn’t find at my school in extracurriculars or in my local community. Most importantly I could connect with others my age and satisfy a need to connect with like-minded people. I finally belonged somewhere, and I didn’t have to sacrifice any part of who I was to do it.