Monday, October 8, 2012

NCSSM and how it saved my life

I just got back from my 20th high school reunion and was reflecting on how much impact my high school had on my life and my career. You see, I was lucky enough to go to the North Carolina School of Science and Math, also known as NCSSM, or as we lovingly called it back then, "S&M". NCSSM is a public high school in Durham -- not far from Duke -- for juniors and seniors. Around 680 students live on campus, in dorms -- a lot like college, but with curfews, and students aren't allowed to have cars. To get in, you take the SAT and some other tests in 10th grade, and if you're accepted, it's completely free of charge -- no tuition, no housing fees, even the food is paid for. (The food was not, by the way, one of the highlights of the place.)

NCSSM is an utterly amazing place. Everyone I know who has been there has had their lives deeply touched by the experience. Although it has a well-deserved reputation as a school for, well, nerds, it is also full of some of the most interesting and creative people I have ever met. Twenty years later, it is amazing to see what my classmates are doing today: Doing high-end CGI for Hollywood movies; numerous professors and research scientists in areas as diverse as political science, planetologyintegrated science and technology, and sociology; working for the Department of Health and Human Services while doing regular club and radio DJ gigs; even serving as an Episcopalian minister. Many of my classmates are not doing "science" or "math" in the conventional sense.

Prior to NCSSM, I lived in a small town called Wilson, about an hour east of Raleigh. (If you're from North Carolina, the correct pronunciation is "WILT-sun".) It would be understatement to say that I did not fit in in Wilson, which is surrounded by a rural tobacco-growing community. There were not a lot of people there like me, and my horizons were severely limited. The main pastime of high-school kids in Wilson those days was driving in circles around the mall parking lot. There were a few great teachers in the schools, but I really needed more than Wilson had to offer.

Coming to NCSSM I found a community of people like me -- a school full of outcasts, geeks, free spirits, lost souls. Not everyone was socially maladjusted, of course, but there were plenty of people there all pushing the boundaries of their humble (often rural and low-middle income) backgrounds. The faculty at NCSSM were (and still are) stellar. I could take Russian, quantum physics, photography, t'ai chi. It was like opening a vista on vast opportunities that I had scant awareness of when I was in Wilson, and I mean it seriously when I say that NCSSM saved my life: there's no way I'd be where I am today without that experience.

For one thing, my exposure to computing was greatly expanded at NCSSM. Along with some other students, I ran the school's VAX minicomputer which powered the school's "intranet" (although it was really a bunch of VT-100 terminals scattered around campus, tied to the single computer). The students and faculty all had primitive email and chat accounts on the VAX -- this was the days before the Internet was widespread. We also had an IBM RT, a high end (at the time) UNIX workstation with 3D (!!) graphics support. A few of us managed to get this machine on the Internet, over a slow ISDN connection, so we could use FTP and email, and the IBM RT was my first UNIX "root" account. At one point, I dusted off an old, unused Data General mainframe sitting in the corner, figured out how to boot it from tape, and set up a series of terminals in the adjacent computer lab, giving any student who asked for it an account, with the provisio that they have no password -- a tribute to RMS' similar practice at the MIT AI Lab. I got to do an internship at nearby Data General, and a volunteer from NC State taught a C programming class after hours. It was incredible.

Outside of conventional academics, NCSSM has tremendous resources for exploring music and the arts. It has the most unbelievable art studio, where we would spend countless hours: in the darkroom, screen printing, making stained glass, paintings, sculptures, ceramics. My major creative outlet there was the electronic music studio. Back then it was a somewhat modest affair: A couple of synthesizers, a drum machine, 8-track reel-to-reel, effects units, MIDI sequencer -- more than enough for me to produce and record two full-length albums (and no, I will not be posting MP3s). I spent hours in that studio every weekend, all thanks to the dear late Ray Church, the music teacher who let me and others run roughshod over "his" gear. The best aspect of this was that the studios were open all the time, and the students were trusted, and encouraged, to make it their own space and use the resources to explore their own projects.

It's important to keep in mind that NCSSM is a public school. It's paid for by the taxpayers of North Carolina, and can only exist because of a state legislature, and state university system, that recognizes the importance of having a high school like this. I can't imagine what my life would be like had I not had the opportunity to go there, and I know a lot of my classmates agree.