Beep bop

Devil in the Details

I would sell my soul to the CS devil to pass Computer Science 61A, but for some damned reason they’re not buying.

On the morning of the first midterm I woke up in tears because, only moments before, I had dreamt that I was face to face with this creepy Wizard of Oz-like floating head who aggressively shouted code at me, while I typed frantically and nearly shit myself (nearly). The actual midterm was basically just as stressful.

But it goes beyond test anxiety or the sheer difficulty of this infamous “intro” class. Most of the time, even when simply attending lab or discussion, it seems like the creepy floating head never left my side and I am helpless to feel only overwhelmed and estranged.

In my experience, walking into Soda Hall (the CS mecca) is like suddenly stumbling upon Narnia, except that instead of beautiful forests and amazing fairyland creatures, everything is made of sharp edges, brightly lit screens and intensely focused robots — seriously, there are robots everywhere.

Down three flights of stairs, far beneath the realm of cell phone reception (and thus, any chance of calling for help), my brilliant peers and I seek to hone our understanding of python (one of the fundamental computerized romance languages) and practice the concepts we have learned—at least in theory.

But unless this room was designed to function as some sort of modernized basement torture chamber — with its blinding, stark white lights and the relentless click, click, click of the keyboard that can drive one to insanity — I have never been able to use this class for its intended purpose.

Upon entering my classroom, the CS robots immediately eye me suspiciously. At first, they appear to walk and talk and move just like other students, but then I notice something different in their mannerisms. Everything they do is crisp, pointed, and always, always driven by some inherent motivation that I, for some unknown reason (possibly my complete distaste for CS), do not possess.

They are strange creatures indeed. I’ve never once seen them eat, and while that could be partially attributed to the “No Food or Drink” sign, I suspect that it’s mostly because they feed exclusively on battery acid with a steaming hot side of competitive determination. And no one wants to be seen slurping all that up in public.

The robots have an M.O. They sit, laptops in front of face, eyes glued to screen, fingers moving with the precise speed and dexterity of ten little cracked out mice, jumping about the keyboard in a fury. They speak in “beep bops” and some kind of math-like jargon, which I, an outsider, almost completely fail to understand. With one calculated glance in my direction, their data receptors can sense me — the foreign stimulus that has just polluted their pristine environment. And then, with the swift click of a button, they eradicate it from their viewing screens, as if I, the one that clearly does not belong, have ceased to exist to them.

Realistically, they don’t actually look at me menacingly (or at all, usually) or seek to “eradicate me” or do anything other than sit and do their work and sometimes ask questions that are way too over my head to understand. But I still feel completely alienated by this room of fellow students and the sixteen-hundred-something other classmates that take this class with me.

It’s not just the feeling of being stupid or behind in the class, but rather the sense that they all know something that I don’t, that they can all do something that I can’t. It’s like an exclusive club where the insiders are all relishing the use of their secretive computer language and I’m just sitting on the outskirts trying, unsuccessfully, to listen in.

While they hunch over their laptops, typing away with alacrity and conviction, I struggle to even open the problem files. While they intelligently discuss the intricacies of data abstraction, I make abstract art all over my notes and hands because that makes more sense to me than anything they’ve ever tried to explain.

I try to do my best. I work through agonizing homework problems, I set up shop in office hours during projects, and I’ve even forced one of my friends, a CS major (robot?), to be my on-call tutor. But still, I have this lingering feeling that I am somehow too inadequate to belong.

But, in looking at the CS geniuses around me like the popular kids in school, I’ve realized that I don’t have to be as cognizant of the computer world as they are. I don’t have to aspire to join their CS “in-crowd” and I can remain on the fringes of the class structure, looking confused and out of place as always.

So for now, I’ll just remain on the outside, looking bitterly at the cool robot cliques that understand python and don’t have the overwhelming urge to cry during the midterm.

And if by some great miracle I can pass CS 61A, I will know for sure that there is a god out there. And I’ll know that he had to pull some serious strings to get me out of this one.

Julia Bertolero writes the Friday blog on the details of everyday life. Contact her at [email protected].