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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: Computer Crashes and Strange Behavior

So, where were we?
Ah yes, Sixth Form. For me it made sense to stay at the same school and just carry on through to Sixth Form, rather than go to a different college. Most of my friends were going on to A-Level, and most of them were staying at the school, so it would just be another two years of ‘more of the same’.
Sort of.

After moving back down to South Wales, my best friend and I would spend two weeks together – one week he’d be down at my house, the other I’d be up there at his. I like to think that the stress our respective mums had at adding another child into their house for a week was offset by the peace of not having them there for a week before or after it.

We were both geeks into technology – he wore it better than I did, with my lily-white sun averse skin, braces and glasses – and both shared a vision for the future. We had been designing our own websites for Star Trek RPGs and started to feel confident about doing it for others. Over a few years, we designed and built several websites for paying customers. Granted, all our customers were either related to us, or knew someone who was related to us, but these were genuine business websites. It was at the time when just having a website made you a cutting edge business, regardless of the quality, so we did quite well.

All of this time, I’d been bettering my technical skills on some real pieces of crap. I love my parents and I know they did the best for us, but they just did not recognize computers as being a big future thing that could be a profitable career, so the computers we had were always the cheapest bits of crap – technically. For the longest time we had a Cyrix M2 processor. That’s right, in a world where Intel and AMD were duking it out for supremacy, we couldn’t even afford either. The Cyrix wheezed on asthmatically until fortune smiled on me, in the shape of a large panel van in the lower back.

As I said above, my parents did the best for us. I like to say we never had a lot growing up, but we had enough. That is largely true, but our holidays were shit.
When you’re young, going an hour down the road to a beach is great fun, but when you’re older and your friends are holidaying in France and going to DisneyWorld in America, you become acutely aware that spending a weekend in a damp cottage in the middle of a farm with a room that’s full of midges is truly a shit sandwich.

This came to its natural conclusion when my Dad decided that what we all needed was a holiday in October to North Wales, to stay in a static caravan.
For the unfamiliar, October in North Wales means freezing cold sideways rain, and a static caravan is basically a car port with plastic walls. This one in particular had a hole in the bathroom floor, so we got to contend with spiders and the freezing cold getting inside when you wanted to do a poo.

I spent most of the first full day there in the car, because it had heating that actually worked and a radio. It was so miserable that we packed up and left early. On the way, we stopped off at IKEA to buy some ‘bits and bobs’, probably so that Dad could have a pee break and Mum could buy something nice so that the trip wasn’t a total waste of life.

Around Birmingham we were sat in stop-start traffic and I was staring idly out of the window, when suddenly my glasses flew off, the headrest of Dad’s driver’s seat punched me in the face, and I was showered with the rear window of our Ford Focus. This was not an LSD trip.

The van driver behind us had been distracted in the stop-start traffic. We’d started moving, but the guy had clearly forgotten the two-part definition of stop-start traffic, and not applied the breaks for the stopping part. He ploughed into us at an estimated 40MPH, utterly crushing the back of the car and shoving us into the car in front.
Sadly for them, they’d just visited an area known as ‘The Potteries’ and filled their car full of – you guessed it – pottery, which we helpfully smashed with our out of control Focus.

I was left with whiplash, which is certainly faked by some accident victims, but is an absolute fucker when you really do have it. On the plus side I was signed off P.E. (Gym for you ‘Muricans) for the rest of the year which was pretty sweet. On the downside, it fucking hurt. We all got a payout from the insurance company, and I used mine to fund a new PC build, in order to cast the arthritic Cyrix into a digital grave.

So, I’m picking my choices for A-Level. We could choose either three or four subjects. Four subjects would give you four A-Levels. Three subjects would give you three A-Levels, but also more free periods throughout the school week, whereupon you were allowed to go off premises, as we were over 16 by now. This was a big deal, but of course there were trade-offs.

Four subjects gave you four grades with which to use to apply to University. You really cared about your top three grades, so you had a backup subject if things went wrong somewhere, and if things went well you came out looking really strong.
Three subjects gave you much more free time, but obviously you were supposed to use that time to make sure you really aced them to bolster your University application.

I chose Four.
Economics, Computing (natch), Physics, and Sociology.

Economics was a natural extension of Business Studies in my mind, and I don’t think there was a Business Studies A-Level at that time in our school.
Computing was the obvious choice. By now I’d pretty much determined that it had to be my future career, as I had nothing else to fall back on.
Physics was due to my fascination with it. I had done really well at GCSE level, in no small part to our excellent and terrifying teacher Mr Mahoney.
Sociology was because some of my best friends were doing it, and I also thought it sounded really interesting.

Sociology was filled with people who thought it would be a fascinating subject and people who thought it would be a doss subject they could coast through. I mean, filled. They had one and a half classes of applicants, and as it was listed as my fourth choice, I didn’t get to join the class. In hindsight, putting it fourth was a huge mistake, but I wouldn’t know that for a while.

So, I was a three-lessoner, which at least meant I got more free time.

Economics was fascinating and we had a great teacher. It felt good to once again learn about the machinery of the modern economy, boosted my confidence about impending adulthood, and was generally just a good fun subject. A bunch of really nice people took the class, so we always had a good time. Plus it was held in a classroom just off the Sixth Form Lounge, so it always felt like we would just ‘hang out’ before class rather than standing in a line outside a regular room ‘like children’.

Computing was … a joke. Unfortunately. Our teacher was an unappreciated genius. Mr Bispham. He told the nerdiest jokes about literally everything he was teaching us, and we would spend most of the lesson staring in confused amazement that it was even happening. The theory was fine. The practical was not fine. We were using a programming language so old and obscure that we were given a copy to take home on a CD-ROM that came off the front of a computing magazine from about 6 years ago.
Keep in mind this was in the early 2000s.

I skipped that lesson a lot. It coincided often in Upper Sixth with a free period that my girlfriend had, so my computing lessons were often spent at her house having sex. I regret nothing.
For my final project, we had to have designed some sort of processing system – basically a form with some buttons that when you clicked on them they would load up other screens that did other things.

It was due in at the end of the Easter break (ideally before the Easter break), and when break started, I had done nothing. Easter break is 2 weeks long, and I spent that time making a ~100 page document that showed screenshots of one of these complete ‘systems’ along with documentation of what it did and how it worked. My mum drove me to school on the last day of Easter break and I handed it in.

I left school with a B grade in Computing. I celebrated that, given that my project had never once worked or even been made in code. The whole thing was done in Photoshop, and then I just wrote my ass off and clearly described it in such detail, they gave me a good grade.

If Computing was a celebration of my sly genius and sexual prowess (sorry), then Physics was a steaming dumpster fire of baby feces. You know, that runny greenish stuff that babies in the Western world poop out because our crappy diet and exposure to chemicals has wiped out some key bacteria from our gut biome that allows us to properly process milk.

I digress. Physics was a trainwreck. The brilliant Mr Mahoney had retired after our last GCSE year, claiming that he was going out at his peak, and his Physics classes of the future would never match our collective genius.

That’s a lie. He was just old.

Either way, Mahoney was out, and the Price was Right. Mr Price was a young new teacher, who was young but looked middle-aged. He was clearly a brilliant physicist, but he was a godawful teacher.

I will freely admit that A-Level Physics is a lot tougher than GCSE physics. Newtonian physics (as taught at GCSE) has nice simple equations and straightforward answers to your physics questions. It’s fascinating and amazing, but it’s simple (relatively speaking, hah).
When I signed up for A-Level Physics, Mr Price looked at my sign-up sheet and said “Hmm, no Maths?”

“Oh no, I’m terrible at Maths!” I cheerily replied.

“Oh, okay.” he said, as he signed me into his class. What he should have said was ‘You will struggle mightily with this class if you’re not good at maths, and I advise you not to take it’. I would have made Sociology my third choice, scrubbed Physics entirely, and that would have been that. Who knows, maybe I would have even taken Drama.

Unfortunately, he didn’t, and I didn’t, and I bombed hard in that class. A couple of my friends were incredibly smart, and a lot of the math that underlies things like Nuclear Physics, Astrophysics, Molecular Physics and other prepended physics came naturally to them.
They struggled. This would have made me feel better, except it wasn’t the material they struggled with, it was the teaching.

At one point, Mr Price was trying to teach us about Nuclear Fission. He scrawled something unintelligible on the whiteboard to explain his point, and my table was baffled.
We asked him to explain it a different way, to which he huffed, rubbed the diagram off the board and drew the exact same thing, only larger.

We looked at each other, not sure if we were being trolled (not that we would have called it that then, because the internet hadn’t yet become full of arseholes and had to invent the phrase) or if we were having a collective stroke.

One of them raised his hand and stifling a laugh, asked Mr Price if he could please try again.

Mr Price rolled his eyes, rubbed it all off the board and drew the exact same thing again, only bigger.

At this point, we had a telepathic conversation, agreed that we were in some sort of ‘Candid Camera’ situation, and just said ‘that’s better, thanks’. After the lesson we popped in to see the Head of Biology, who explained Nuclear Fission to us in a way that we could understand.

At the end of our second A-Level year, I was seriously checking out. Up until my A-Levels, I was a committed schoolboy getting good grades, but had begun to coast. I’ll freely admit that finally bagging not just a girlfriend, but the cutest girl in the whole year (who also happened to be brilliant – she left with FIVE A-Levels at A grade. Show-off) shook things up a bit. For the first time, I was experiencing the whole ‘There’s more to life than just…’ feeling.

For the first time, A-Level grades were measured by taking exams in the first year, then again the second year and adding the grades together. I had come out of Year 1 with a C in Economics, an A in Computing, and a D in Physics. Yep, like I said, Physics was hard. Solid, as we used to describe very difficult things at that age.

Economics I knew I could work harder at.
Computing was … Computing.
Physics was a hopeless task. My parents even paid for a private tutor, but my brain just could not compute things in the right way. I forget if it was Lower or Upper Sixth, but we took a mock exam paper, and it was hopeless.
I was literally sat there laughing at how little I knew, but more particularly, how the concepts they were questioning bore so little resemblance to what I felt we’d been taught by the Price is Right.

In a similar vein to my Drama-related rebellion, I started to fill in joke answers. I obviously answered what I could, but it was precious little. For one three-part question, I had to work out the answer to parts one and two, before being asked to explain the difference between the two in part three.

My answer was something very similar to “Probably because I haven’t got a bloody clue what I’m doing!”

And yes, I definitely said ‘bloody’.

When the papers were handed back, mine was absent. When I put my hand up and called it out, Mr Price exploded. He raged at my insubordination in a frankly astonishing manner, before slamming the paper down on my desk. Naturally I had been given an F. Unfortunately, I don’t think the point I was trying to telegraph (i.e. I literally don’t know what this stuff is, help me teacher) turned into ‘useless student in my class is a dick’.

This is a funny memory to me. It’s probably the lowest I’d ever gone in my school career …. oh wait no, that comes later. It’s the second lowest I’d gone in my school career, which was otherwise glittering (I was a Prefect in Lower Sixth). I just remember being so overwhelmed with how utterly useless we were as a teacher/student combination that it poured out of me in bemused sarcasm. I’ve discovered I use sarcasm to try and telegraph my innermost issues and should probably find a healthier way to do it but … it does amuse me in a dark way.

The relationship with Mr Price culminated in the actual lowest point in my school career, and also of two friends of mine.

The end of A-Levels is a weird feeling. We didn’t do Prom at that time – the theft of American ideas wasn’t quite in full swing – so as school came to an end, we were like highly trained monkeys in a cage that was slowly dissolving around us. As the days wore on, the consequences of any given action began to fade from certain hardships to blancmange-like cartoons.

It was tradition at this point for pranks to start happening. Kids who had been tormented by teachers for the last six years would have their gentle revenge. In many cases there was genuine respect and camaraderie between teacher and student, and there were a few emotional moments.

I took part in a couple of pranks – duct-taping up all the bells in a couple of the buildings (it made no difference because we’re idiots and bells don’t work like we thought they did) and removing the doorhandles from the Sixth Form Common Room doors, effectively turning the whole building into a one-way system.

Then two of my friends and I discovered that there was a line, clasped hands around each others’ shoulders, and stepped right over it.

We knew what car Mr Price drove, and we were all pissed at him. Collectively we felt that he’d done a bad job, and all thought we were going to do badly. For the other two, the stakes were high. They’d applied to really good Universities and needed to grade well.

We snuck out into the carpark, and like the childish bastards we were, we started to let his tyres down. Rear driver’s tyre down, we moved up to the front and started in on it when one of the Law teachers walked past and spotted us hunkered there.

Unfortunately being ‘good boys’ we were instantly caught out and couldn’t tell a good lie, so were immediately asked to report back to our Form Room immediately, tell our Form Tutor what we’d done and Await Consequences.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m writing all of this.

The author

Our Form Tutor – Dr. Matthews – was a legend. We told him what we’d done, he instantly got it (being a science faculty member himself), but obviously chastised us for our behavior. This all felt like we’d gotten away with it. Then the Head of Sixth Form came in, and gave us a bollocking. We only stayed due, apparently, to our exemplary standard up to that point.

This was another of those few occasions where I really acted out of sorts. I’m not going to say it felt bad, but it was clearly the wrong thing to have done. The other pranks were fun, so I have no apologies for those. I am reflecting on why I can’t just tackle an issue more head-on, and apparently have to dance around it with sarcasm or doing something really crazy.

At the end of it all, I worked hard and improved my Economics score to a B, which I was really proud of. I had briefly considered taking Economics to University, but found it relied on a lot of Maths and after my Physics experience, quickly sidestepped that choice.

My Computing score fell in the second year, most likely owing to all the sex. I still regret nothing. I ended up with a B which was still more than good enough for what I needed, so all in all I consider my Computing A-Level career a considerable win.

Physics came out as an E. An E. The last time I got a grade that low it was in GCSE Welsh. I was embarrassed, but honestly just glad that the experience was over.

To get into my chosen University, I needed a grade combo of CCD, with one of the C’s in Computing. You’ll notice these grades are quite low. You are correct. I knew early on that I wasn’t aiming at the heralded ‘Red Brick’ Universities – places like Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Bristol, London.

It wasn’t because I didn’t think I could get into them, but because they taught ‘Classical Computing’ as I call it. The courses were all labelled Computing, but it was essentially programming.
I knew I wasn’t interested in that after I tried to learn PHP for the web-design business and quickly realized it was just as bad as Astrophysics calculations to me.

So, I had to look at other options. There used to be a number of colleges called “Polytechnics”, which you’d go to if you weren’t University material. These got upgraded to full Universities that could offer legitimate degrees, but in a wider and more ‘niche’ or ‘nouveau’ array of subjects.

Those are the ones I applied to, and settled on Manchester Metropolitan University – ironically (?) pretty close to where we’d moved to the first time. It seems I was destined to bounce between South Wales and The North for my younger years. It was certainly the nicest university I’d seen. Sheffield Hallam was nice, but I had a Demi-flu when I visited and just associated the place with misery and a long car ride. I visited Exeter, but wasn’t impressed with how ‘old’ the place felt.

Manchester Met, or MMU had an ‘Internet Computing’ course which promised an interesting mix of computing subjects all in one course. It seemed much more interesting and relevant than an old school Computing course at Durham University, and I was exited to get going. At first.

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