Jeanette, Olivia, Netty, Clarice, Alice, Stella, Marty, Theodore, Don, Joe, and Spencer—the names of my eleven grandparents. We are not blood-related, but they are my role models nonetheless who frequently give me dating advice, motivational talks, and the don’t-be-treated-like-a-doormat warning.
It was a warm October Saturday when I was first introduced to my wise friends. We met through Project Connect, a non-profit organization co-founded by my twin sister and me, which strives to bridge the digital divide so prevalent in the status quo. They live together at St. Paul’s Senior Home in downtown San Diego, and in our first 50-minute tech time, we embarked upon a journey of keyboard navigation.
I began by explaining the functions of each key—delete erases words, tab indents the line, and caps lock produces entirely uppercase letters. Each description was met with wide, cartoon eyes and vigorous nods of the head, which I assumed meant they understood my explanations. Most of them, after all, had walked in through the swinging doors with a massive laptop courtesy of their children, and an already well-developed knowledge of Netflix. So, they must know how to type. But you know what happens when you assume, it makes an a** out of u and me, and sure enough, when I asked each of them to reproduce “The dress costs $109.50,” I stared into a sea of expressionless faces. Two minutes later, we were all still staring at either blank Word documents or computer screens that had timed out and had turned black, urging me to change my approach.
I turned to each of them and asked, “What is greatest skill or proudest accomplishment?”
No response. I hung my head.
“Rowing,” came a brave murmur from the back of the room. It was Theodore. His eyes darted up to meet mine and I witnessed a twinge of embarrassment. “I rowed for my university.”
Wonderful. I could work with that. I pulled up one of the wooden chairs next to Theodore, and the entire room turned to face us; even the cuckoo bird clock seemed to tick in anticipation. Oh brother.
I told Theodore to envision his keyboard as a rowing boat, and his fingers swishing in time with oars splashing in the salt water. Each word was analogous to a single stroke, and an entire sentence was a sequence of movements by his team.
“So…the first stroke, then, is these two tiny lines, which are here [points to the quotation marks] and if I press this button [points to shift] then I think I can get them.” There was a strain in his voice, and almost immediate distraught when he discovered that pressing the keys in succession only produced one tick.
“Damn it,” he muttered.
I smiled. He was so close. “Try pressing them together,” I advised. Ten minutes later, his Word document was inhabited by a single sentence: “The dress costs $109.50” He had done it! Theodore’s eyes beamed and he held his hand up for a much-deserved high-five. Seeing his success, his peers began calling out their respective talents: hiking, cooking, baking, running, biking, and singing. Some had more obscure skills—ballroom dancing, juggling, jump roping, and lassoing. We had a cowboy! I’ll admit, incorporating some of their skills into my newfound teaching approach was a bit of a stretch. Juggling, which was Stella’s talent, made her type as if she was bouncing the keys, but her rhythm became impeccable.
I have my programming teacher to thank for this new teaching-with-analogies technique. When I saw the joy that illuminated Alice’s skin as she was able to successfully complete a YouTube search for her favorite ballad, I realized why they were all so hesitant to announce their confusion during my initial explanations: trying to do something new that their 4-year-old grandsons could do without a second thought is 10% humbling and 90% humiliating.
But with each tech time, their confidence is augmented and I am blessed to lend a hand in providing them with a new form of communication. Every story I hear of a new connection Netty has established with her family or of the riveting news article that Don has recently read on CNN.com, renews my humility. The relationship that I have built with each of my grandparents through Project Connect has been nothing short of inspiring. With each individual, Project Connect closes the digital divide just an inch more, and I am grateful to do this alongside my fellow senior citizens.