Dear Dave

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Computer Guy

Dear Dave,

Thanks for asking how my new job at Malton House School is going.

I suppose the answer depends on how you want to look at it. As a low stress return to the world of work, it's been pretty good. I potter about tinkering with gadgets, I get to choose my hours, and a whole load of shifty teenagers have to call me 'sir'. On the other hand, I have to wear a tie and in the three weeks since I took on IT support duties, I've managed to get precisely two computers working properly. This is partly because I'm only managing ten hours a week but mainly because computers are infuriating and temperamental at the best of times, let alone when they've been left at the mercy of a whole load of shifty teenagers. At my current rate of achievement, stuff is going wrong faster than I can fix it, and that's on top of the huge backlog of malfunctioning technology that already exists. Employing any objective scale, things aren't proceeding well.

Happily, however, the two computers I've tuned up are the ones used by the headmaster and the school secretary, so objectivity doesn't come into it. Mr Fitzroy has done nothing but beam at me since I brought the internet and the joys of online taxidermy chatrooms to his office. Mrs Cavendish, meanwhile, is delighted that it no longer takes her machine fifteen minutes to boot up in the morning. She even makes me cups of tea. As long as I'm polite and look reasonably smart, it doesn't matter if I fix anything else, my position should remain secure.

Still, it's best to look busy...

The other day I ran a basic diagnostic test on the computers in the language lab. This consisted of turning them on and seeing what happened. Of the twenty present, seventeen started up, two did nothing and one laughed evilly before challenging me to a game of Pac-Man for my soul. A little fiddling with wires brought one of the dead machines back to life and the other responded well to being hit very hard while no one was looking. I removed the final one (which referred to itself as 'The Grim Bleeper') and swapped it with a more cooperative machine in the English department. (They're less likely to notice anything's wrong.)

While I was finishing off this task, I got an emergency call.

As I'm always wandering about, if any teacher has a technical issue that needs urgent attention, they use the internal phones to contact the school secretary, who then alerts me by walkie-talkie. This happens so rarely, she'd be as well calling me on my mobile but where would be the fun in that?

Fortunately, Mrs Cavendish is a big fan of crime drama and is getting scarily into the concept. "Computer Guy this is Dispatch. We have a 3-10 in progress in room 14. Please respond."

"10-4, Dispatch. I'm on my way."

The walkie-talkie is less secure than the phones. Anyone could be listening in - pupils, neighbours, parents, aliens or, heaven help us, education inspectors. To overcome this problem, I've devised a set of codes to deal with most eventualities:

1-01 - Computer acting strangely.
1-02 - Computer barely working.
1-03 - Computer dead.
1-04 - Computer dead. Foul play suspected.
1-05 - Computer dropped out of window. Bring dustpan and brush.
2-11 - Cup of tea available. Bring biscuits.
2-21 - Cup of tea spilt on a computer. Bring straw.
3-10 - Teacher embarrassing themselves with poor grasp of technology. Assistance required.
4-15 - School secretary bored and wanting to play with walkie-talkies.
666 - Terminator robots in the building.
999 - Headmaster about to touch something electronic.

A 3-10 is a high priority, so I hurried along to room 14 to discover Mr Blakelock and his biology class with the blinds drawn, watching a documentary about the mating habits of baboons on a large TV/DVD combi that had been wheeled to the front.

"You got it working then?" I said, speaking over the sounds of excited primates.

Mr Blakelock shook his head. "No, I can't make the disc play. None of the buttons do anything."

"Where's the remote?"

"Can't find it. It's not in the usual place."

I started poking at the telly. "OK, some joker has turned the panel lock on." I rooted around in my backpack for a universal control and some codes. "Give me a minute." After a couple of attempts, I managed to get the TV to respond and show me a menu. A little more faffing and we were in business. I tried the DVD but, confusingly, Jeremy Kyle came on, complete with participants screaming about DNA results and a small fight. "Oh, sorry, I thought I had it there." I made to press some more buttons.

"Stop! That's it," said Mr Blakelock. "That's where we got to yesterday."

"Er... Really?"

"Yes, thanks. You've been a great help."

I shrugged. "Oh, OK, I'll leave you to it then. You should be able to use the buttons on the TV now until the remote turns up..."

I was barely out the door before I had an unprecedented second emergency call of the day. It was a 999. I scurried to the headmaster's office as fast as I could.

* * *

"You have some experience with programming, I believe?" said Mr Fitzroy. He didn't look up from his screen but the stuffed animals arrayed around the room stared hard at me in his stead.

"Yee-es..." I said cautiously. Technically he was correct, but my programming skills are very rusty. I was also nervous why he was asking.

"Good. Good. Perhaps you can help me with this then?" He waved a packet of biscuits at me.

"Perhaps..." I was pretty certain I could help him with those, although I couldn't entirely see their relevance.

"Excellent." He pushed his chair back from his desk and motioned me to the computer. "Mr Everett was unable to procure Custard Creams for the refreshment table in the staff room this week and opted to buy HobNobs as an alternative. The difference in price needs to be taken into account when calculating the amount each member of staff owes to the kitty. Mrs Reynolds has also brought it to my attention that she doesn't like HobNobs and Mr Jacobs has made it known that he will be drinking tea rather than coffee until such time as the Custard Creams are reinstated. If you could make the necessary amendments to the programme to reflect these changes, that would be most helpful."

I sighed. This was why I'd negotiated my own private supply of biscuits as part of my pay deal. "OK, I'll take a look," I said.

"Mr McIntyre is normally responsible but he's not answering his phone. It's possible he may be in the cellar again."

"Ah, yes, about the cellar..." I began but then got immediately distracted by the grid of numbers and words on the screen. "This isn't a programme."


"No. It's a spreadsheet."

The headmaster's brow furrowed. "Does that present any problems?"

"Well... I guess you can embed formulae and bits of code into the fields so that the entries are dependent on each other, making it like..." I trailed off as I realised the headmaster was already staring out of the window. "Er, never mind... This appears to be where the price of the biscuits goes. I'll just alter it, change what people are having, click on re-calculate and... Oh..."

The computer suddenly started to hum loudly, as if in deep concentration, and whole columns of words and numbers flickered and changed and then flickered some more. This process went on for some time. I began to suspect that the screen I was looking at was only one small part of something much more complex.

"Does this spreadsheet do anything else besides work out what the staff need to pay for their elevenses?" I asked.

The headmaster broke away from warily eyeing a lawnmower that was standing unattended in the middle of the lawns. "Oh, it has many uses. The accounts, the procurement schedule for consumables, that sort of thing."

I scrolled around a little. There were entries for almost everything - school attendance, gross income, parking space allocation, what colour of socks to wear, when to listen to Radio 4 and which pupil to blame in the event of a fire. One box was titled 'First to be sacked when the money runs outs'. I watched as my name flickered up briefly and was then replaced by 'The entire chemistry faculty'.

I stepped away from the computer, deeply afraid to touch it any further. "I think that's sorted it," I said, trying to sound convincing. "You might want to get Mr McIntyre to check over it anyway. I've, er... just remembered I promised to help Mr Gardner with his printer." This was stretching the truth slightly, since I hadn't actually made a firm commitment to any time-frame on the promise, but I was keen to get away and forget everything I'd seen.

"I wasn't aware there were any printers in room 7."

"I thought he was in room 10."

"Ah, perhaps that's the case," said the headmaster. "Let me consult the timetable."

I was expecting him to pull out a dog-eared weekly planner from a drawer. To my horror, he scrolled to another part of the spreadsheet.

"My mistake," he said. "He is in room 10. You'd best hurry along and I..." He peered in consternation at the screen. "I suppose I shall have to inform the second year that they no longer have woodwork at this time on a Tuesday and should change immediately for hockey practice..."

* * *

It was lunch-time before I figured out that Mr Gardner's printer needed to be switched off and on again three times and then have a random sequence of buttons pressed on its control panel in order to make it function properly. Luckily, since Marie had gone to visit a friend after nursery, I didn't have to rush home. I collected my coat and took a leisurely stroll through the building on my way to the main doors. It had been a relatively successful morning but I was starting to fret how I was possibly going to get the school's countless machines working without a horde of conscripts to help me.

Just then, I passed a classroom full of pupils with laptops. Every single one of them was concentrating hard, despite no teacher being present. This, in itself, was deeply suspicious.

I stuck my head round the door. "What's going on in here?"

"Computer club, sir," muttered one of the shifty teenagers.

All at once, I began to grin...

Yours in a woman's world,


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