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Anxiety

That Time I Planned a Tech Conference for My Son & Almost Went Crazy

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Last summer, my now 11-year-old son won a scholarship to attend Young Rewired State, an under-18 computer programming conference in England. Computer programming is very much not my thing. I didn’t want to go. So he went with his dad and had a great time.

Did I say he had a great time? I meant he had a transformative time. Surrounded by bits and bytes and zeroes and ones (not to mention other kids who understood what he was talking about), my I-plead-the-5th-Amendment tween who tends to answer most questions with “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” blossomed. Suddenly he could make conversation that went beyond nods and shrugs. He even got up on stage and presented his coding project to an auditorium full of people, including the adult tech experts serving as judges.

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He came home a changed kid. Thanks to his newly-gained self-confidence, he not only began raising his hand more in class (every parent/teacher conference, we’d get the same feedback, “I know he knows the answer, so why won’t he engage?”), he even taught a class of his own, to both kids and adults, on using artificial intelligence to program video games as part of Columbia University’s Scratch Day, a morning and afternoon dedicated to introducing newbies to the MIT programming language for children, and offering more experienced coders tips for taking their work to the next level.

All through the subsequent fall and winter, he couldn’t stop talking about what a great time he’d had in England, and how much he couldn’t wait to do it again.

Except that, in 2014, my son had a grant to cover his travel expenses. In 2015, he didn’t. No grant, no Europe, I explained.

He took it stoically, without complaint. But then he reminded me that Young Rewired State was an international festival. Last year, they had satellite conference centers outside of England, in Ireland, Germany, and Singapore. Why couldn’t there be one in New York City?

I contacted Young Rewired State. They told me they would LOVE to have a center in NYC. All they needed was someone to take charge and organize it on the ground.

“Oh, OK,” I said. “That sounds great. Let me know when someone steps up, and we’ll be there!”

As the school year drew to a close, my son kept asking me if there was any news of an NYC Center.

Nope, I told him, no one has stepped up yet. Bummer. But, you know, what can you do?

And then, in May, I very grudgingly gave in. Fine. If no one else was going to do it, sure, what the hell, I’d give it a whirl. The things we do for our kids, right?

Except that… I have no idea how to organize an international youth tech conference. Not even my small, American corner of it.

I am not what one would call an organized person. In fact, my resume says NOT detail-oriented. I am a big-picture kind of woman.

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And yet here I was, in charge of not only finding a space (because unoccupied, no-fee, centrally-located to public transportation from all five boroughs real estate is not any kind of issue in New York City…), but also recruiting participants and, oh yeah, mentoring them through a week of creating original projects using open-source data we would then videotape and upload to the main center in England so that our kids could participate in the weekend competition.

I got the recruiting part down. In fact, our event “sold out” faster than any other in YRS history. This told me that my son wasn’t the only middle schooler who, despite living in the heart of Silicon Alley, nevertheless still has trouble meeting like-minded peers. In the end, the group skewered more towards high school kids, with one other 11-year-old and a 13-year-old making up the lower end, but it was better than nothing.

The thing I had trouble with was the tech part of the tech conference. (How important is that, really?) Or, rather, I didn’t have trouble. I simply and promptly failed. Luckily, my husband stepped in.

And that’s when something I never expected happened. I not only got to see my son in his natural, techie habitat, but I got to see my husband in his element, too.

My husband is a middle school math and physics teacher (who spent a decade in corporate tech, which is why he could help out here). But I’ve never seen him in action before.

He’s damned good!

I watched him explain the same concept over and over to a befuddled child, never losing his patience. I watched him (magically?) notice that a kid was having trouble, realize that they didn’t want to ask for help, and come up with a way to offer it so that the kid would both accept it and not feel stupid for doing so.

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Whenever I wanted to address the group, I raised my voice. Easily half of them ignored me.

Whenever my husband wanted to address the group, he lowered his voice. Forcing them to stop what they were doing and really listen.

When I mentioned to my husband how impressed I was, he reminded me that he was a professional. So, for him, YRS week was business as usual.

My son had the time of his life.

I…came close to having a nervous breakdown. Between the kids, the space, the logistics, and the time difference with the UK, I was constantly being forced out of my comfort zone, asked to perform tasks I had no experience with, and to answer questions I had no clue about. I was frantically floundering the entire time. I believe one of the official definitions of torture is being forced to engage in acts over which you have no control.

When the week ended, parents were asking me about plans for 2016.

I told them I had to recover from this year.

Still hasn’t happened yet.

But have I mentioned that my son is really, really happy?

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