I have a T-shirt with an iconic covered wagon on the front, and underneath it is the harsh sentence, “You died of dysentery.” Many who went to school when the Apple II computer invaded K-12 education smile when they see me in it.
On a fall afternoon in 1980, at the end of a school day, I strolled into the teacher’s lounge and saw three boxes on the large table that served as a communal lunch table.
“What have we here?” I asked.
“It’s a computer,” The department chairwoman responded.
A computer! I had heard about these machines, how they navigated men to the moon and kept track of schedules, and passenger manifests for airlines. The ones I had seen in photos were monstrous, with complicated webs of wires of assorted colors coming out the back. And now there was one in three small boxes sitting on the table?
I convinced the chairwoman, who was about to put it in a closet, to let me see what this computer could do.
“Be my guest,” she replied.
I took the three boxes back to my classroom and, following the user’s manual, hooked the disk drive and TV screen to the central unit, a tan-colored rectangle with a keyboard, above which was the machine’s name APPLE II.
I inserted the system’s diskette, a 5.25-inch square item with an open window to read and write data, in the drive and turned on the machine. The Apple sounded like a popcorn popper warming up. A little red light on the disk drive box flickered, telling me the computer was reading from or writing to the diskette. It was useless information, but it added to the moment’s drama.
When the noise and light stopped, the television screen remained black, but a white object that looked like this ] appeared, followed by a blinking cursor. The machine awaited my commands, but I did not yet know any.
In the days that followed, I spent my free time in front of that Apple II; the user manual was always close at hand. I brought the computer and its manual home on the weekends and set it on the dining room table.
No application software came with the computer, so I learned how to program it using a language called BASIC. I created a blockish ship that sailed around the screen to various blockish land formations for the students to identify.
The diskettes for the Apple II were not middle-school-friendly. When not in the drive, they had to be protected by a special envelope. Middle school students frequently forgetting to use this sleeve would put their elbows on the diskette’s window rendering it useless.
Later, when Apple and various software startups began to produce applications for students, the challenge was no longer how to code an activity but convincing the chairwoman that buying such software was money well spent. Her response to one such request stayed with me as one of the stupidest remarks I ever heard.
“Those things are just a fad. They’ll be gone in a year or two.”
I bought a copy of “The Oregon Trail,” a simulation game for the Apple that took the user across the continent from St Louis, Missouri, to the Willamette River Valley in Oregon. It illustrated the challenges pioneers faced, including dying of dysentery.
Late one night, as I powered down the Apple II sitting on the dining room table, I thought, “This will be part of my life until I die.” Over forty years later, this still holds, proving that if this is a fad, it must be the longest-running one in history.
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