The parallels are apparent.
Again I am in a Barnes and Noble, books surround me like dust motes in a sun ray.
Again I bypass the fiction, unknown characters beckon to me from closed covers begging to be cracked open, their stories set free.
Again I am accompanied somewhat reluctantly and again we head for the technology section.
Ostensibly the two moments in time are identical, but only ostensibly. A ocean of time, space and circumstance separate me from the last time I was in a Barnes and Noble searching for a book on programming.
The last time, it was the sultry summer of 2007 and no I was not frolicking free as the breeze through sleepy summer adventures. I was a physics student at New Mexico State University, but that day I found myself in Waco, Texas. I had been accepted into a summer research program at Baylor University.
At the present it is the capricious spring of 2015 and I am liberated from my duties as a math teacher for a glorious week due to that most wonderful occasion known as Spring Break.
Back in 2007, I presented myself to the professor in charge of high-energy physics (HEP) research. At the time it was my dream, a mirage in my mind’s eye, to work as a physicist at a particle accelerator. Not just any particle accelerator, I wanted to work at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that was just nearing completion on the border of France. I knew I needed experience, which is why I presented myself that morning to the professor and asked for a spot on his summer research team.
In 2015, the old dream is well and truly dead. I have not pondered hadrons for years. A nascent ambition brings me to the book store. Undeniably, it has its seeds in the past, but this time I am no physicist. I am a humble teacher, seeking something more. This time I am accepted into a computer programming bootcamp and I have a lot to cover before class begins.
The professor regarded me with the kindest, softest eyes I have ever seen on a man. He asks if I know how to program computers. I respond with the truth: No, but I am willing to learn. He should have sent me packing right there and then. In the description for the research team that I read the night before, it clearly stated that all members of the the team must have a knowledge of programming. I ignored that entirely and took my chances. The kind professor was silent for a moment and then he said, If you get a book on C programming and learn to program this summer I will put you on the team.
I am not alone with the professor on that faithful day. There is young man from Arkansas who desires to work on the HEP team as well. He has prior experience with programming and is ready to start. I think most professors would have just taken the young man and sent me on my way to find a different research team. But the kind professor was fundamentally different. Instead, he turned to the young man and inquired whether or not he had driven from Arkansas. The youth responded that he had and that he had his car with him to help get around Waco. I on the other hand had flown in from New Mexico. The professor said, perhaps the two of you could go to a local bookstore and look for some books on C programming. Eager for a spot on the research team I looked at the young man beside me for the first time, a perfect stranger and told him I would be happy for the ride.
I am nervous. I have been in Waco for less that 48 hours and already I am breaking my mother’s cardinal rule about riding in cars with boys. I rationalize that it is ok because I am doing it for science. The young man is curiously melancholy, but he manages it well as if he has been all his life and knows where to store it. He wears a baseball cap and speaks intelligently and I am blissfully unaware that we are already friends. We arrive at Barnes and Noble only to discover a mutual love of books. He helps me to select a large tome on C programming. We spend another hour in fiction discussing books we have read and chatting happily about the ones we long to read when there is time.
I wish I could say that every story has a happy ending. But if you have been alive longer than 20min you know that isn’t true. The strain of trying to learn to program will working on a research project irreparably damaged my confidence even though I did manage to barely finish my project before the summer’s end. That trying experience sounded the death knell of my love affair with high-energy physics. It also lead to a fear of technology that I am only now determined to break. I dated the young man for two years, but that too ended in ash as all flames do.
Success! However small. Maybe there are a few happy endings left in the world. I’m out to change my narrative on programming. I’m out to get my happy ending.