Calling In Tech Support

Endpaper: Liza E. Pincus
Sarah E Orlando

I shield my eyes from the glaring sun streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows in Quincy dining hall. I scan the room three or four times before I spot my savior.

He always arrives before I do. He sits perfectly still at the end of one of the long tables and nods in my direction. We say hi. I ask—for the fourth time—if he’s still thinking of declaring computer science. I make the same joke I made last week, the kind of joke a middle-aged father would make, about how he’ll graduate with more marketable skills than I will.

My tutor for Computer Science 50 is a sophomore. I met him three weeks earlier when the Bureau of Study Counsel matched us up. He politely inquires about my thesis meeting earlier that morning.

Within 30 seconds, I have opened my laptop and we are down to business. Throughout the next four and a half hours, five different groups of friends eat lunch beside us and I overhear snippets of their comparatively trivial conversations: final clubs, essays, a recent football game. It is as if my tutor and I are frozen in time while the rest of the world keeps moving in rapid forward motion.

Our arrangement is to work on the problem set for two hours each Tuesday­—two hours with my tutor is the equivalent of 15 hours on my own. But this week I have a job interview, a thesis deadline, and a paper, and I need more time with him.

He stops me. “What’s the number one mistake of beginning programmers?” He cracks a smile. I have already made this same error so many times in three weeks that it has become our catchphrase, our inside joke. In order to signify equality in this programming language, you need two equal signs next to each other, and I’ve only put one. We laugh. I’ve made it clear by now that we can and should laugh at my clumsiness at the keyboard and inability to transfer most of what I’ve learned from week to week—I give up; I sort of see no alternative to humor.

We dive back into the problem set and he walks me through each line of its specifications. He already knows the exact line of code I’ll need but makes me come up with it myself. Often he must force it out of me—he is much more adamant that I actually learn the material than I am. It is a painfully slow process: he somehow manages to translate the foreign language on the computer screen into English, telling a story. Drawing charts and pictures, his notebook becomes a children’s book full of scrawled numbers and buckets—he tells me they store shapes and numbers like a computer stores memory. He re-teaches math I haven’t seen since the calculus I learned in high school.

At 2:10 p.m., we realize the servery is about to close. I have ignored a quietly growling stomach for the past two hours, my need to take advantage of every precious minute of help much greater than my need for food. We break for approximately three minutes. I shovel food onto my plate without looking, anxious to get back to work.

Back at home in Currier, I’m much more deliberate about the food on my plate. Ana, who runs the grill, no longer makes me fill out an order form but remembers, without fail, to put cheese on my garden burger. My thesis adviser, with whom I have worked one-on-one for more than a year, text messages me on a regular basis. Most of my nine roommates have lived with me for so long that they can imitate with frightening accuracy my lame dance moves at parties. But next year, I won’t have nine roommates to come home to anymore, and for the first time in 17 years, I won’t be a student.

By 4:30 p.m. in Quincy, I am more than three-quarters done with the problem set and we call it a day. Accustomed to the post-pset headache, my fingers find their way to my bulging temples to massage the pain. I don’t quite know how to thank him: our work today could mean one less night of CS office hours, aggressively shoving my way to the front of the line and sweet-talking TFs. This week I might only need to beg my linkmate for two hours of his Thursday night to help me debug and submit.

I leave the dining hall exhausted but happy and pass the same yard I’ve been walking through every day for the past four years. CS50 may be over for good—like senior year will be soon—but if the class has taught me anything, it’s that I won’t be done asking people for help.

—Liza E. Pincus ’12, a Magazine staff writer, is a History and Literature concentrator in Currier. Post-graduation, she plans to continue broadening her Local Area Network.

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