NetDay 1996

Into the halls of my past --
to throw the switch on the future

Published: March 10, 1996

I'VE WALKED this path a thousand times before, past the lake and around the bend where the big pines give way to streetlights, past where the twisting country road becomes a straight city street. There was a time, 25 years gone, when each of these houses had a name that meant something to me. Story, Pitt, Garton, Powers . . . A lot to remember. But that's the deal: I am up at this ungodly hour on a Saturday morning because I do remember. It's NetDay and I'm walking back 25 years, back to Roy Cloud School to settle a debt.

These days, I write about the culture of the digital world each week for the Mercury News. The Net is squarely in the center of my world. But for five years, this elementary school in a far western corner of Redwood City was my universe. Now, I walk across the playground and feel the memories seeping up through my feet like summer heat rising off the blacktop. The longest kick-ball game in the world, the Great Water-Balloon Fight of Fifth Grade, the day it snowed in Emerald Hills . . .

NetDay is a small gesture that means at least as much for the adults as it does for the kids. Yes, this day is about getting schools wired. But it's also a symbolic exercise to remind us that we're connected to these institutions. What will happen inside these cinderblock walls in the next few years will be so earthshaking that nobody -- parents and non-parents, wireheads and technophobes -- can afford to not be involved. So here I am with a spool of Cat 5 wire in one hand and a masonry drill in the other.

I walk into Room 2, still wondering if this is my place. Am I an intruder parachuting in for one day to assuage my own guilt? It doesn't take but a second to see the answer: There's Michelle, my high school friend; Bob, my fifth-grade teacher; Chris, my pal on the school board; Erik and David, my neighbors. Nothing could feel more right. This is my tribe, and this is still my turf.

By any measure, the Roy Cloud School I knew from '72 to '76 was a very privileged place. We were the children of Ampex, Varian, Philco-Ford and a hundred other tech companies. Our parents rode the first wave of computing straight to upper-middle-class affluence and security. They gave us a world of backyard pool parties, piano lessons and endless optimism.

Roy Cloud gave us rocketry and movie-making and as many summer activities as we could squeeze in before the sun went down and Mom pulled up with the station wagon. Walking through those halls today, I realize my nostrils are still programmed to expect the summertime smells of photography labs and ceramics workshops.

Still a wealthy school

Proposition 13 and state-mandated programs killed all that, but Roy Cloud is still very much a wealthy school right on the edge between a rich place (Woodside) and a not-so-rich place (Redwood City). Today, the majority of houses in Emerald Hills cost between a half-million and a million dollars. They're occupied by the next generation of tech families - people from companies such as Oracle, Sun and Tandem. Very few of my classmates will ever get a chance to walk their own children to Roy Cloud. I am among the luckiest of the lucky.

Today, as we work together stringing cables along the ceiling of a supply room, I look down from my ladder at Ernie LeBlanc -- the sixth-grade teacher who taught me how to kick a football, how to build a rocket, how to behave like some semblance of a young gentleman. Looking straight down on him, I notice he is losing a bit of hair, and what's left is going all gray. Twenty-three years of sixth-graders will do that to a guy.

LeBlanc doesn't teach rocketry anymore. Today he's the systems czar and soon-to-be-Webmaster for Cloud. ''We didn't have any technology when you were here last, besides the telephone,'' he says, laughing. I remind him that high-tech was the eight-foot slide-rule over the blackboard in Mr. Mitchell's fifth-grade math class. As we painstakingly screw wire casings into a ceiling that almost crumbles at our touch, I ask him how Cloud became a technology and communications magnet school. ''Before this, we'd have PTA cupcake sales and jog-a-thons to raise money to buy computers,'' he says. ''Then, all of a sudden, three years ago, the state gave us $400,000 of voluntary integration funds and told us to build a magnet school. The minute we focused on technology, there were people in the community coming to us saying, 'What can I do to help?' ''

Ahead of the curve

If NetDay is a statewide wake-up call, then Roy Cloud is already out of bed, fully dressed and five steps out the front door. In Room 4, there are 46 Macintosh PowerPC 6100s fed by an Apple 9150 file server. Here, the 605 kids in kindergarten through seventh grade produce a newspaper and a literary magazine using a production system more sophisticated than the one in place at the Mercury News. Over two weekends last year, volunteers wired almost all of the school for fast Ethernet connections. With donated labor and equipment, the $40,000 job cost $15,000.

Someone walking down the central corridor would miss the biggest piece of the deal: In a boiler room where they used to store basketballs and jump-ropes, there's now a refrigerator-sized Synoptics hub with finger-thick cables connecting it to rows of phone jacks on the wall.

With the grunt work of wiring all but complete, today we are extending the network to four portable classrooms and the office. Room 24 -- a ''portable'' classroom that hasn't moved an inch since LBJ was president -- is special to me. That was Mrs. Hawley's second-grade class, the first place I ever tasted the full power of my own words. I want to do Room 24, but instead I end up with LeBlanc, punching holes in the walls of the principal's office. Together, we recite the Cable Installer's Rosary, which goes something like ''White-green-one, white-orange-two . . .'' The work is slow and my fingers fumble with the delicate strands. LeBlanc could probably do this in his sleep, but he hangs back and pulls me along. As he stands over me, reciting the sequence and offering encouragement, it dawns on me that he is still, first and foremost, my teacher.

Another day at the office

After lunch, I go over to Room 24 and see Woody and Marilyn Lawrence. For these parents, who built the system from scratch, NetDay must be just another day at the office. Long after the hoopla has faded, you know they'll still be here every week, doing the deal. Sheepishly, I tell Woody it's people like them who make Cloud a ''rich'' school. He smiles and looks away. ''There are a lot more than just us,'' he says.

Woody's Neil Young CD is blasting over the intercom as I wander from room to room looking in on our little party of 10. It feels like a celebration, a family celebration. I think of what John Perry Barlow wrote in his ''Declaration of Cyberspace Independence.'' We volunteers -- with our own memories of paste, thick pencils and metal lunch boxes -- will always be immigrants in this strange digital land, whereas today's kids will be natives.

What I really want to do is place a note somewhere in Room 24, in a place only an inquisitive kid would ever come across it:

DEAR CLOUD KID: One Saturday in 1996, a few of us -- teachers, parents and others -- came here to install the little box you see over there under the blackboard. It may not seem like a big deal to you now, but it was a big deal back then. Everyone from the president of the United States on down to me pulled wire today because it was tremendously important to make sure everyone -- including you -- was, as we said in those days, ''in the loop.''

You see those little-kid chairs there in the reading circle? One of those was mine once. Of the people who shared that circle with me, one became the mayor of this town. Another is a great winemaker. Another works in Hollywood. We knew we could be whatever we wanted. And I came back here to make sure that promise was still in effect for you. There's an uncharted world out there, way beyond the edge of the blacktop. You will own it someday. You will do things and go places I can't even dream of.

My memories of this place: a first kiss, a first fistfight, a sheet of smiley-face stickers, a summer-school tie-dye party, a safe, happy world whizzing by under the banana seat of a blue five-speed Sting Ray. All in the days before the wire. Now that you're living the digital life, will all your memories be just bits and bytes on an optical disc? I hope not.

Instead of a note, I write a check and tell LeBlanc to consider it a bet on the future.

Soon, it's time for me to go -- back to the world out there, where tribal ties and Cat 5 wire make not a twisted pair. The dreams I had inside these rooms back then have all come true. For today's Cloud kid, my only wish: May it be the same for you.

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