When I became a father, 19 years ago, I remember helping my wife into the car at the hospital. Next came my son in his carseat. It was heavy– heavier than the seven or so pounds of baby boy. It seemed awkward, picking up a life by a handle.
I slid behind the wheel of that car and my world changed. I can’t recall how many cars I crashed, but by the time I was 17 I had earned the badge “Car Killer.” I rolled my dad’s red Mercury Capri while I was on my learner’s permit. When I was sixteen I hydroplaned through a stoplight and crashed a brand new Ford Escort. My best friend claims his knees ached for years from being driven into the folding dashboard.
Suddenly I had a family to care for and a son to raise. I was almost afraid to drive.
* * *
Yesterday, I sent my two youngest children off to camp for a week, leaving only me, my wife, and my oldest son in the house. It’s odd being just the three of us again. It reminds me of how scary if was then: making it alone, young and poor in far-away Dallas, not knowing how we were going to pay the bills each month, not knowing how I was going to get papers written for school. Not knowing how to raise a child.
We’ve come a long way since then. My oldest is a man.
Walking home after dinner, he asked me why I would be happier for my children to be teachers and writers than to follow in my footsteps and become software developers. I didn’t remember mentioning that to him, but I do think about it.
My ancestors were geeks. My paternal grandfather was a TV repairman when that was advanced technology. My maternal grandfather was an engineer at a broadcast radio station. My father retired from Ford after 32 years of developing software. I design and develop software, but that wasn’t my plan.
When I was young, perhaps nine or ten years old, we had a Dodge conversion van parked perennially in the back yard. It had two fold-out bunks and a dining table. I added a dissection kit full of scalpels and probes, a microscope, and a chemistry set to make it my laboratory. The musty smell of old camper was quickly covered by the scientific odors of rubbing alcohol and sulfur. The pantry shelves filled with specimen bottles containing frogs and crawfish. One sunny day, after several hours of mostly-scientific experiments and microscopic detection, I stepped out of that van and thought, how utterly boring my dad’s job must be—how I couldn’t do what he did. I don’t remember much else, but that conviction, that my life would be different, is still as vivid as the smell of that sulphur.
Then, four or five years later, my dad and I constructed what was essentially a progenitor of the personal computer using the chassis of an old x-ray machine (don’t ask me where he found that) and a million tiny parts from Radio Shack. We wired and soldered and drilled until all the guts were in place and properly connected. Technology was already in my blood. The first time the electricity flowed into our creation, bringing the amber monitor to life, I was hooked.
But I remained resolute. There would be no cubicles or desks in my future. I was determined to teach theology, or perhaps ancient languages. I had learned what John Adams said to Abigail about how his work was to enable his children to do greater things:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. (John Adams to Abigail Adams, [post 12 May 1780])
Adams envisioned a ladder in the quality of life that could only be climbed between generations. Adams accepted the responsibility of working and sacrificing to ensure his descendants would have the opportunity to invest in ever nobler pursuits. I needed to move beyond technology.
Years later, when my first child was born and my career in computer science was taking off, these words came back to me. Making a better life—this is part of the American Dream and had been since the Founding Fathers. When my son asked me why I would be happier for him to be a teacher or writer than a computer geek like me, I told him that he wouldn’t make as much money, but he would do more. I laid a foundation that he could build on. To rebuild the same foundation might be profitable, but it was not better. Teachers and writers help everyone climb that ladder John Adams kept in the back of his mind as he sacrificed so much for future generations. Teachers and writers shape the next generation and nudge it along Adams’ ladder to a better life: not measured according to a standard of living, but according to the advancement in the quality of life and the impact that life has on society. A life built upon the work of those who came before, leaving it better than they found it.
* * *
Like my ancestors before me, I remain on that rung of Adams’ ladder occupied by geeks. But I’m content. I know I’m a transitional link in the Beltramo family line. My oldest is in college, studying to be a teacher of History. My daughter, only 12, loves art. My middle child, 13 years old, is already a good writer, full of character and stories. My kids are moving up the ladder.
And they don’t want to know a thing about software.