The first computer program I wrote was in 4th grade in 1989. My teacher, Mr. Strictland, had set up a row of twelve computers in the hallway and my class of twenty four students lined up, walked single file outside our classroom, and were told to sit down in pairs in front of one of the computers. I’m pretty sure they were Commodore 64s: I remember chunky beige keyboards, an ugly colored CRT, and big block full caps letters. Every computer had the same thing on the screen: a big black rectangle on the left with a blinking white rectangle and another empty black rectangle on the right.
I sat down with a friend and there was a piece of paper next to the keyboard with some instructions. It told us to use the keyboard to enter the text on the paper worksheet, exactly as it was listed on the worksheet. We pecked one symbol a time, verifying our transcription. It was an incomprehensibly boring task: P U T 1 2 , 6 <ENTER>, P U T 13, 6 <ENTER>. Every keystroke was reflected on the screen, until after about 15 minutes, we had a huge column of text, the same word “PUT”, over and over, each with a different pair of numbers. I wanted to make sure we’d entered everything correctly, so I read out each line and had my partner check it against the worksheet.
The last instruction on the worksheet said to press a special key — I think it was a function key— and then see what appeared. We pressed it and a white duck appeared in the black rectangle. A duck! We’d thought we were doing some strange math problem, but we’d been drawing a duck the entire time! This shocking revelation quickly spread throughout the class, with everyone behind on transcription racing ahead to make their own duck, and with those of us who had our duck tinkering with the numbers we’d entered, slowly transforming our ducks into incoherent pixel art.