You Taught Me - The Computer Did Not

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
My experience of working with one German man who was fascinated with the Internet and looked upon it as a challenge.

Submitted: October 01, 2018

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Submitted: October 01, 2018

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You Taught Me - The Computer Did Not

The computer sprang to life, its monitor glowing in the warm inviting house. An excited Gerard sat in front of the glow opening his spreadsheet file. The rows and columns were filled with numbers, many cells marked with a variety of colours. Gerard’s facial expression was one of pride. It was of accomplishment and of overcoming. When he first started computer lessons he looked defeated as he tried to make sense of the software with its calculations and formatting.  But he was fiercely determined to sort out his finances using the spreadsheet, his traits of order and discipline in tasks fired by his computer project. “Well I am German” he remarked. “So was my mother” I replied.

 

From that moment on we understood each other as our commonality was bonded through the country my mother was born in and for him a country he wanted to reconnect with but had left behind decades ago. It was also our mutual love of organisation and order. Gerard’s life spark was reignited through the possibilities the Internet brought. Perhaps it was too the connection coming to lessons for the company.

 

Gerard was not your typical Germanic man. “I’m not blonde” he would joke, laughing at my horrified reaction. He was a tall, moustached man in his late 70’s, fond of coming to class in his dressing gown. Gerard had immigrated to Australia in the 1950’s and had shut out his past. It was his dislike of letter writing and flying that disengaged him from his home country.

 

The Internet to him was mesmerising in its possibilities for reconnection. It represented a chance to see what happened to his home country. The German Internet newspapers brought him joy. ‘They are building new buildings in Berlin where I used to take my wife when we were courting.”

 

My observation and assumption was that Gerard was sad wishing for a return to his homeland. He would show me on maps and in pictures where he would as a child roam. Not sparing details about the country, I would try to dissuade him from talking about the Nazi occupation but he would dismiss concerns.

 

“You seem down today” Gerard exclaimed.

 

“No” I said.

 

“Let’s look at photos of the area of Freiberg I visited.”

 

“Do you miss Germany?” I asked.

 

He paused. I looked for the dramatics. Pain in the eyes. A sigh. Tears. None of that happened.

 

“You would think I had some dark secret back home. No, I chose Australia. We miss things, but I would miss my home here more. You may think this strange but on the screen here I am back home. It would be nice to visit but I can’t live there. It is my age but I am happier in spirit here than there.”

 

His age. I thought age was a place in one’s soul where regret festered. Did he regret leaving Germany behind? He seemed to have read my mind on this when he brought up the issue. “It was after the war and there was nothing” he exclaimed. He was also lucky because his and his wife’s parents decided to come out too and Gerard was an only child. “Fifty Australian dollars to come here and you got me” he joked.

 

I speculated on what may be Gerard’s personality so I could adjust my teaching style. He seemed to trust me immediately. Often my students, all over sixty years of age, had trust issues with younger tutors. The first lesson sealed that as I asked Gerard if he knew many overseas newspapers had websites. “Really! Let’s see what’s in Germany.”

 

Watching Gerard’s excitement reminded me of when I discovered the Internet in 1996. As we found Frankfurt, Berlin and Dusseldorf papers he went silent intensely reading story after story. I left him to it that afternoon lesson. A group of us in the backroom commented that he was very quiet, which was unusual for him, as he would laugh and joke the hours away often annoying, but playfully so, the craft group.

 

“This is truly amazing” Gerard seemed transfixed to the screen. “This is my life they are reporting on.”

 

“Are you enjoying it Gerard or is it bringing back anything you don’t want to talk about...”

 

“No, no, it is a gift you have given me.”

 

As the weeks progressed Gerard was enjoying the Internet so much he set up a connection at home. His wife remarked how happier he’d become lately. She made one remark that stuck with me. “Every since he discovered this he’s taking better care of himself. He just seems, well, all I can say is healthier. For the past few years since retirement he’s seemed very gloomy.” I was pleased to hear that. I was doing my job.

 

Yet Gerard had a brewing computer software problem that he was now reading to solve. Gerard complained about how after two years many of his income issues were still unresolved. Having money all over accounts and investments was stressing him out. Arranging a meeting between him, my manager, myself and the other tutors, I agreed to help him out providing he brought in no personal accounts or details.

 

At the meeting I was firm that Gerard had to bring in fake data. I said, “Well, I cannot see your personal bank accounts, but I have a solution. Have you heard of a spreadsheet?”

 

“Bedspread?” He joked.

 

“Oh please you have having me on again, let’s get serious.”

 

“What is this wonderful thing?” His curiosity aroused by his facial expressions and wide eyes beneath the thick rimmed glasses.

 

“It’s like a big sheet with rows and columns for you to put all your figures in and calculate interest and other financial budgeting things.”

 

Puzzled, he said, “no”.

 

 

“It’s software that can help you sort out your finances with order and precision!”

 

“Precision!” Excitement appeared quickly on his face.

 

“It will take weeks to learn, it can get complicated and I need to know how much...”

 

“Yes, yes, yes are you ready to start now?” The eagerness entrapping me.

 

“Ok but just a short introduction today.”

 

The green icon on the computer’s desktop looked rather ominous today. This was going to be a challenge to teach him but his enthusiasm engulfed my reasoning.

 

“Right, this is the spreadsheet,” as clicked on it, “as you can see these are the rows and these are the columns were you are going to type in the number and word data.”

 

“Really?” He seemed confused. “Cell? Is that a prison cell in this bedspread? You put a figure in there and it never comes out.”

 

“No it is just where the number resides.”

 

“I want dollar signs I want to see the money signs!”

 

“No problem we can insert those in.”

 

“Are you sure there is no easier way to do this.”

 

I didn’t answer. I thought the same.

 

The weeks rolled on and the painstaking work of the spreadsheet was slowly starting to make sense. Yet unlike the joy of his German newspapers, this project was agitating him and his patience was wearing thin.

 

“Gerard, you enter the data in a cell, you need to place the cursor there and type in the figures.”

 

“This is more like a prison cell.”

 

“You don’t have to be a perfectionist you have been filling out these cells well and calculating all those formulas yourself.” I just could not see his problem with this.

 

We had better teaching days but something was in the way of his progress and I could not see it. His expression had become well-worn and fatigued over the 4 months of this project. Yet his steadfast refusal to give up was engrained. I could see that without him speaking. Moving the figures around, they were not balancing. Yet he had paid attention to every single step on how to manipulate the spreadsheet. He was sharp on what to put where so it would make sense. His mouse clicks were fast, his grasp of the complex formulas carefully placed in the cells were immaculate. He even taught me bits of the software I did not use when I was trained in it!

 

The frowning continued in one lesson. I had to confront this because he was putting stress on himself to get things perfect. This was dummy data, not real financial information, so what was the problem?

 

“So Gerard what’s troubling you? You have made extraordinary progress with a very complex piece of software. The investment figures you calculated are showing a nice profit. Very well done!”

 

“No something is missing. I have a task but cannot get what I need to close this page. So reminds me” he trailed off.

 

“Reminds you of?”

 

“Well during the start of the war everything was rationed. Everything. My father did not go to war, but he did do work for the party. Those evil ones. My mother seemed not that concerned about my father as she trusted him. But she was very hard on me with the house. She would even keep me at home which was not what our local school administrators would want. That was even punishable by jail and I shudder to think what else. My father rarely saw the rounding up of friends and neighbours, but he knew of the camps being planned to house prisoners. Mother’s main obsession was protecting the house.”

 

I gathered this was going to be an emotional for him and I was not trained in this. I had to listen and try to see what exactly was causing this block to his progress. It was deeply embedded in the past.

 

“We had the house protected, we did not get robbed and mother made me sleep in the living room by the fire. But one window at the front of the house that people could look in bothered her. One week father went off for 6 months to Poland for some reason he never talked about. All that was required was two large nails to nail the window shut so it would take a huge effort to break it. But our neighbours had over time disappeared if you know what I mean. The neighbour was a wonderful Jewish man who was a carpenter. But as I went over he was gone and the entire house and workshop empty. Where was I going to get the nails? Mother was distressed but refused to help. For whatever reason I never understood, the shutting of this window forever represented safety and security.”

 

I looked at the spreadsheet and I noticed something. The formula was wrong. I did not like correcting him, but I had to. He was not looking at the problem the right way, but the link between his childhood story and the completion of this project was slowly getting clearer.

 

“Did you ever find a solution to it to?”

 

“Yes but only after 2 solid weeks of searching for a solution. I could not see another solution. It was bricks without straw like in the book of Exodus. The impossible had to be achieved. You can’t make bricks without straw, how the hell was I going to shut the window with non-existent nails? This is what I see here on this spreadsheet. How am I going to close the gap to get these figures to balance?”

 

“Ok, so what did you do to solve the window issue?”

 

He stopped and was silent. His thought process was turning over, evidenced by this removing his glasses and sighing heavily.

 

“The straw substitute.” He raised his voice in excitement. “I placed a bunch of nails over the fireplace and melted the ends then joined them together.”

 

“So you found that small solution to an insurmountable problem?”

 

“Well it worked eventually once the smaller nail became a larger one. Took a week to do two of them without them breaking when hammered. But it was strong enough the two large nails and I got them into the window without breaking. Success!”

 

“Gerard, do you think you have what you need here? We can edit the formula and shape it until it bangs in the window so to speak.”

 

“Oh yes. Why couldn’t I get it before?”

 

“You were thinking of what could not be done and of someone looking over your shoulder, someone to please. But I am not that person.”

 

“Yes I was thinking I need to do this for my wife. I heard her voice come on, come on.”

 

“Then let’s try this.”

 

We experimented with the formula, found the mistakes in the data and the calculation worked. He had made bricks without straw. There was one final thing that caught me off guard.

 

Gerard said “this is great it now makes sense. I can move on.”

 

“Well you did put those nails in the fire and joined them together.”

 

“You know, I never told my wife or parents that story. I did not want to let them down. I did not want to let down my wife with this project as it is our future as self-funded retirees. What I suppose is not being willing to find out how to use this formula and its properties and hearing mother in my head going I want it down now blocked me. I felt fear. Yet when you allowed me to speak, I remembered what happened to the melting nails and how they joined as two and closed the window forever. Mother did not thank me, but that did not matter. I was young but I still should have been firm in that I was looking for a solution. Now I know here in my homeland Australia, I do have all I need and more to solve a problem. Besides with this formula I can make $500 more a month,” he giggled.

 

After the lesson I reflected on what he said and how allowing someone to voice something in the moment is important. To just listen first is important. Perhaps I was spending too much time with Gerard on this project at the expense of other students. Yet I felt by bringing out this memory, unintentionally, maybe I was responsible for releasing a block in his heart or mind that prevented him from going on.

 

Gerard continued to attend less and less. I was worried but preferred not to pry. He was frail but no one mentioned anything as we had new students coming in to learn.

 

Nine months later in the heat of the Brisbane day I was feeling a bit flustered and remembered the joy of teaching Gerard, transferring my energy to others. My boss called me in.

 

“I have a letter for you” she exclaimed, “It looks like good news.”

 

Opening the letter it was from Gerard. He told me his finances were in great shape and was thankful to me for teaching him. Some odd thing happened in the letter. The ending. Was he reading my mind? It was a simple sentence and I thought well Gerard taught me not to be a counsellor but a problem-solver, even it meant going off topic. We are ruled by technology; but at the end a human must transfer their knowledge on how to use computers and software. This was summed up by instead of saying goodbye or regards he wrote:

 

You taught me – the computer did not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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