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Preface Everything I Needed to Know about Web Community I Learned in High Sc...

Preface Everything I Needed to Know about Web Community I Learned in High School Algebra Class

It’s a little-known fact that I failed algebra in high school. Twice. That second time was with Mr. Payne. He took great, well, pains in spelling his name to the class. P-A-Y-N-E. We all spelled it the other way, anyway.

Especially me. I can say without any embellishment that I sucked at algebra. I sucked the air out three classrooms over. Two years later when my sister took the same required algebra courses that I kamikazed through, the teachers all sighed, “Oh Lord, please, not another Powazek.”

But Jenny was good at algebra. Not me. I was good at writing. I was good at design. I even survived a weightlifting class by hiding in the corner and pretending I was a coat rack. But algebra massacred me every time.

So there I was in algebra class, bored out of my mind, one hot Southern California day in the late eighties. Claremont High School wasn’t going to let me go to college unless I got through this class, so I was trying desperately to concentrate. And failing.

In a moment of panic, I made a desperate graffiti plea to the universe. “Save me,” I wrote on the fake wood veneer of the desk. “I am so bored.”

And little did I know that it would work so well.

The next day, when I entered Mister Pain’s class for another hour of torture, there was a message waiting for me, scrawled in pencil on the desk.

“Me, too,” it said.


Claremont High had six class periods. So there were five other bodies that sat bored in that seat besides mine on any given day. And one of those people had reached out to me. I had to know more.

“I hate algebra,” I wrote in my trusty number two. “You, too?”

And I sat there, excited, waiting for tomorrow. I couldn’t believe it, but for the first time in my life, I was actually looking forward to tomorrow’s algebra class. My mother would have been so proud.

When the next day arrived, I had a new note. “Yeah,” it said.

It went on like this for weeks. It wasn’t deep, it wasn’t witty, it was just there. A voice in the darkness. An unknown friend.

And then they came.

I never found out who they were, but they threatened to ruin everything. We had such a good thing going, the mystery person and I. We were two of the six people who used that desk each day, and we were happy. But there were four others who sat there, lurking, reading our conversation. And now they wanted in.

“You’re stupid,” said a new voice in unfamiliar handwriting. “Shut up!” wrote someone else. And thus our fragile communication was facing its first challenge.

When I came into class the next day, I was greeted by a totally blank desk. My heart sank. I sat down, looked up at Mister Pain’s back at the blackboard, and sighed.

It was only later, as Mister Pain was handing me my pop quiz back, emblazoned with a bright red D+, that I noticed it. As the pop quiz drifted across my desk, it stopped right at the corner, where the faux wood met the metal bar that held the whole chair-desk contraption together. And there, where real metal met fake wood, was a tiny arrow written in pencil.

Ignoring the test much to Mr. Payne’s chagrin, I fingered the arrow. What did it mean? I followed its direction with my eye and turned around. I wound up face-to-face with Eric Hashiguchi, all of 15 years old and raising the curve for everyone. His pop quiz had an A on it, naturally.

“What?” he said, looking annoyed.

I spun back around in my seat. But the arrow was still there, unexplained. I started to fondle the desk, reaching around, and still nothing. Finally, too frustrated to keep my cool, I just put my head in my lap and looked up at the underside of the desk.

And there it was. In between the bumps of abandoned gum and the occasional booger, there was a piece of paper, jammed between the metal bar and the desk. I ripped it out and sat upright just before Mr. Payne turned around to examine the class.

His eyes fell on me. I smiled. He went on with his lecture.

I opened my entirely unused algebra book, using it as a cover to unfold the note. It was my friend’s handwriting. “Are you there?” it said.

“Joy!” I wrote.

We went on writing like this for the rest of the semester. The daily notes were my salvation. A friend in a cold, dark, mathematical universe I didn’t understand. In hindsight, I probably should have used this discreet communication channel to glean answers to tests or help on homework, but all I was really interested in was this new person and our fragile conversation.

We talked for weeks, gradually revealing more of ourselves, growing our trust. We had agreements and disagreements. We faced the pressure from too many voices and devised a clever solution. We had a pseudo-public conversation as strangers, and gradually grew a friendship.

Sound familiar yet?

In our time together, we learned many of the lessons of virtual community. We learned that communities are formed out of necessity—some spark that unites far-flung people with a common need (in this case, camaraderie). We faced flamers and trolls and persevered. We learned that communities are sometimes better with fewer members, not more. We basically created an atombased, user-filtering solution—anyone smart enough to find the arrow and see what it meant could have participated. And we learned that virtual intimacy takes time, and that strong bonds can be formed without a single real-life glance.

In the end I did end up meeting my pen pal. We even ended up at the same college, working on the same college newspaper. We never shared a desk again, though.

And I had to repeat algebra that summer.

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