Keyboards and Keystrokes. Confessions of a Black Geek.

Black keyboard

At the behest of my favorite reader, Levi, I’ve decided to share another (unfinished) chapter from my book.

It recounts my formative first experience with computers, in high school, and signals where my interest in technology was piqued.


In 1985, I was a sophomore at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. It was a private Catholic high school known for its athletics and rigorous academics. My older sister Beatrice had set the bar, by applying for and being accepted to the prestigious Stuart Country Day School for Girls, in Princeton. Even though it cost my parents a grip, they weren’t prepared to skimp on the education for their boys, so my brothers and I were enrolled in the slightly less expensive and much closer Notre Dame.

Quiet is kept, I was a great student. I excelled in all things academic. Being the child of two Nigerian educators (dad had a PhD and mom two Masters degrees), I didn’t have much of a choice. And it went without saying that I was a dork.  A Black Nigerian dork, but a dork nonetheless.

I graduated at the top of my class from elementary school. High school was no different. True to my genetics, in my freshman year I tested into all AP courses. Over the course of my high school career, I had AP Math (algebra, geometry and trig), AP English, AP Biology, AP Chemistry and Honors French. Even with this schedule, school was a breeze. I got straight A’s and was on the Honor Roll every semester.

But it wasn’t a total cakewalk.  Despite the fact that I was a Black brainiac, there was one class in which I was rendered daft and totally useless: typing (or word processing rather). Sure, I could recite the periodic chart, conjugate a sentence in French and dissect an invertebrate with floss and a toothpick, but in typing I struggled.  I was totally out of my element.

No amount of intellect was going to help me break the cipher of the cryptograph machine they called a typewriter.  “Place your hands so that your fingers rest at ASDF JKL;”  What are you saying? It felt so weird. Why not ASDFGHJK? Or SDFGHJKL Or even ASDFKL;’?  There was just too much going on at the same time.  Hands cocked just so, eyes shifting from copy to keys to typed sheet, I was overwhelmed.

While my classmates’ fingers flew across the keys, click, click, clacking away, I found myself pecking tentatively, struggling for accuracy, not speed.  Head down, I stared menacingly at the keys to ensure they remained where they were supposed to be.  Imagine my consternation upon hearing “Eyes up Mr. Chukumba!  You should be looking at the copy not the keys! Eyes up!” If my eyes were up, how was I to know if I was pressing the right keys? Riddle me that Joker!

The torture was exquisite. I struggled through the first half of the term, earning a “B” – my lowest grade ever.  I had to face the very real possibility that my GPA would be reduced by a non-academic class. Would I ever live down the shame? Mercifully, the semester ended with me no worse the wear.  I survived, and my fingers eventually attuned to resting on the “home row” of the keyboard, poised and ready.

Despite surviving the first term of typing, I was loathe to return the following semester. Who needs typing anyway? I was going to a titan of industry, run my own business, rule the world! Some lackey was going to do my typing. Couldn’t I take another AP class instead? Something useful, like animal husbandry perhaps?

As I walked into the typing classroom and sat in my seat, agonizing over another torturous semester, I failed to notice that our word processors had been replaced by keyboards, CPUs and monitors. Our typing instructor had been replaced by a person calling himself a “computer programmer.”

Some time in the 80s, the powers that be in the Roman Catholic Dioceses felt that their college prep schools should ready students for the coming world of computers. So the decision was made to add basic programming  to the curriculum. And apparently over the break, Notre Dame took heed of that directive and introduced computing.

When our instructor informed us that were sitting in the new computer lab, for the new Computer Science course, the goosebumps on my arms told me something truly life changing was going down.  I would now have the opportunity to put the techniques I had learned in our typing class to practical use. I was over the moon! As we walked through the process of “booting up” the computer and I saw the blinking glowing green cursor on the screen for the first time, I knew I had arrived.

Mind you, it’s not like I hadn’t seen a computer before.  My younger brother, Anthony, had hipped me to computers a while ago. Anthony was a true geek.  He had some early hobbyist version DIY personal computer, which he hooked up to an old black and white television (which served as his monitor) in our basement. At least a year or so before my class, he had animated a little digital man and made him run across the television screen.

He could make the running man do all kinds of things. Run left to right. Right to left. Diagonally. In descending rows across the screen until he disappeared. But he did other things too. Like make the computer speak. And play music, and rain digits (a la Matrix).

I was mesmerized then and it all came back as I sat in class.  I vaguely recalled his “if, then” commands, as we were talked through BASIC, DOS and ASCII. When we were given the key to rebooting the computer, if we ever experienced a glitch, (the now famous) Ctrl+Alt+Del, I felt that I was being handed the Rosetta Stone, that would allow me to unlock untold secret digital knowledge.

After we ran through several exercises, I discovered that I was able to focus more on the instructor’s instruction than the location of the keys as my fingers found their stride. Outside of trying to find the various function keys, I never looked down at the keys. I had mastered the keyboard!

By the end of that first class, I was buzzing, and I knew then (as I do now) that this tech thing was going to be an indelible part of my future. Even though I didn’t take up programming, I realized the power of computing and knew that somehow my personal fortune lay in understanding (even at the most basic level) how things – digital things – worked. And how the inner workings of this world would impact everything.

Now before all you fact checkers get all up in arms over my dates, know that I’m still researching.

I’ve reached out to my old high school to see if they can pull my transcripts and let me know if my memory actually serves me correctly.

Who knew that writing a book would actually require you to remember dates and shit?

It’s a work in progress, bear with me.

But anyway, Levi, what do you think?

Do I keep going?

1 Comment

Filed under digital advocacy, technology

One response to “Keyboards and Keystrokes. Confessions of a Black Geek.

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