On Learning, and Music, and Programming

In high school, an amazing and kind old giant of a man named Mr. Bills found me playing guitar in the hallway during lunch hour. His soft, low voice slipped through the brambles of his impressive beard as he complimented my music and asked if I would ever like to play the cello. I was surprised—I had never noticed him before, and unlike the other adults in the building he was reaching out to me as a friend; as an equal. We spent the rest of that school year meeting in his small office at lunch as he taught me where to find the notes and how the bow could make them sing. Mr. Bills had such a simple way about him, a method of teaching undoubtedly carried over from his years of working with special needs children, where he would feed me just enough information to run with and then watch where I could take it. He was endlessly patient, and utterly confident in my abilities—at least, that’s how he let me feel.

The next year, our schedules changed, and our lunchtime jams became less frequent. Sometimes he would see me playing guitar in the hallway; sometimes he would let me use his cello while he worked. Then I graduated, and we fell out of contact. I probably never really thanked him, or properly said goodbye, but somehow I’m sure he understood.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a few “Mr. Bills’” in my life. Mr. Nelson was another, much earlier one—he taught me to program. Like Mr. Bills, I found him enormously tall and incredibly, incredibly patient. I don’t really remember who coaxed him into helping me, or why, but he was a parent of some other kids at the school and people knew that he knew how to program (at a time when it was less common than it is now, I presume), and that I wanted to, so it was arranged. I’m sure that he didn’t receive a penny for it, coming to school after hours to teach a twelve year old kid about for loops and variable scope out of the kindness of his heart.

I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but like my later experience with Mr. Bills, Mr. Nelson only fed me small bits of information at a time. I often had to learn what questions to ask before he could give me the answers. It sounds like an obvious way to teach, but that’s not how most schools work, for a number of boring reasons.

(The more I think about it, the more I realize that any subjects I know well were learned that way—small bites at a time, with a curious and eager mind.)

Music and programming are not really that different to me. They used to be—that is, they started out in very distinct mental boxes—but nowadays I think of them in similar ways. I don’t play music nearly as much as I’d like, or as I used to, and I sometimes go through bouts of programming less than I’d like to as well, but when I get to them they are the same: boundless frameworks, guidelines, rules to dance in and out of and space to create anything, in one of a thousand ways.

(I was going to write a post about annoying software buzz-words, but it turned into this instead…)


Software developer, book writer, beer brewer :)

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