Binary Redneck

Gifts of All Kinds

One of my mentees recently left me with a very special gift: a copy of Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, Vols 1-4a.

Besides being a staple of the computer science community, these books have a special meaning for me personally. They remind me of another, even more priceless, gift: the support of adults in my young life, especially my parents, even when they didn’t understand me. I grew up in the last place one might expect a software engineer or information security professional to come from: the remains of an old farming community on Chicago’s south side, surrounded by some rougher neighborhoods. I was just a little farm girl who liked to read a lot.

I liked to read so much, in fact, that I’d read literally our entire library by the time I was 11 or so, even the things I had no interest in. Our reference librarian diligently helped to get me more books, especially tech books, through Cook County’s Inter-Library Loan (ILL) system. This was a harder task than you might imagine, despite the fact that the ILL was an agreement designed exactly for this purpose: so that patrons of any library in our county could borrow books from the collection of any other.

Sometimes ILL requests went smoothly, and sometimes they did not. Our tiny library was shared by Ford Heights, a multigenerational welfare community with gang problems and appalling literacy numbers, Glenwood, and Lynwood, a small farming town then not yet hit by urban sprawl, where many adults in my father’s generation left school early to work. Requests for technical books from us were often met with surprise and even refusal. One librarian asked ours, “can anyone there even read?”.

I don’t think our librarian understood why a 12-year-old girl wanted to read a three-volume1 treatise on algorithms. I’m not sure if anyone in town besides myself really knew what an algorithm was or why there were so many of them. However, our wonderful reference librarian was incredibly indignant that anyone, anywhere would deny a child a book that the child was not just volunteering, but excited to read. After months of persistance, some library in the city coughed up a copy, with one horrible restriction: I couldn’t take it home. The books must be kept in my library during the loan period and only read there.

I can’t say that computers were my mother’s bag, either. All she knew was that there had been a long argument over whether or not these expensive computer books would be loaned to our library for me or not. Mom is an elementary school teacher, and if there’s one thing she believes in, it’s reading. Luckily, when the books arrived, we were on summer break. Every day for three weeks, she helped me pack a lunch and dropped me off at the library to study those books, then picked me up again. She let me chatter about them, even though I don’t think she entirely followed. I drank in as much as a 7th grader possibly could in three weeks (which was far from the entire contents), and back they went. No extension permitted.

I learned quite a bit that summer about searching and sorting. I started thinking about data in terms of the operations I would want to perform on it later. However, that wasn’t the important part in the long run. The biggest pay-off was that I learned, again, that my goals and choices mattered. I understood, then, that not all families treated their children this way. However, I also understood how common it was for parents to be so far lost into mental illness, substance addiction, and other dysfunctions that they couldn’t be bothered to feed their kids. I chalked the two up to the same kinds of lives.

It was only after I reached adulthood that I realized there are plenty of families in the apparently functional band, where feeding the kids happens, and school happens, adults have jobs and nobody’s being abused, yet children are only supported so long as their aspirations are things that their parents can identify with. This seems to be more common, on the whole, than either extreme.

I could lecture for a page or two on the psychological underpinnings of this: on tribalism, on parents’ fearing for their kids’ futures, on parenthood and identity, but that doesn’t matter so much to me, even though it’s all quite true. Humans are special animals: we don’t have to operate on instinct and emotion alone. We can use reason to make ourselves better.

Most people getting ready to have kids seem to fantasize about how their son or daughter might follow in their footsteps, or achieve things the parent dreamed of but never grasped. I’ve certainly learned important things from my parents, and they wanted the best for me. Thankfully, they didn’t spend a lot of time defining what “the best” was. They let me figure it out. When I wanted to be an astronaut, my dad stayed up to watch all the news reports about the international space station with me, and got out his aged drafting tools and some big paper to help me design my own for a contest I never won. When I wanted to be a writer, my mom dutifully read and copy-edited piles of fiction that never saw the light of day.

It may sound like a waste to some parents: I’ve found that a lot of people either expect youth to be frittered away and people to “find themselves” and their purpose magically in their 20s, having no real experience of work. Others expect young people to have laser-beam focus nearly from birth.

Today, I do cybersecurity focused on cutting-edge R&D. Trying to think my way around space station design as a child probably had something to do with how well I tackle the concerns of giant telescopes and oceanic drones today. All those years of “pointless” fiction writing likely lead to the work as a ghostwriter that partially paid my way through high school, and the technical writing success I’ve enjoyed in adulthood.

When I had my own child, I waited excitedly to find out what person he would be. I didn’t plan for a mini-me, or even demand that he be someone I easily understand. My parents taught me that.

Kids decide who to be…if you fight them on it, you just cause damage. If you support them, and give them the guidance to do whatever it is with a decent work ethic, skill, and ethics…you’ve given them an incredible gift.

Some of the saddest adults I know were kids from good families who did what was expected of them, and never considered that they had the option to do the things they were passionate about that didn’t fit those expectations.

The cool thing is that you don’t even have to be a parent to be a supportive presence in a kid’s life. I posted this thinking of my mom, but that librarian whose name I can’t quite remember fought some battles for me, too.

  1. Volume 4a wasn’t published until I was much older. [return]