Pushing Boundaries

Written by Inesha Premaratne – iX Coding ’14, Harvard

There is this scene in Eat, Pray, Love that I have always loved. One that I must recall for you if you are to understand what exactly it means that I, Inesha Premaratne, am learning how to code. Code. I, a government concentrator who is computer-savvy enough to create a word document but who knows well, knew, nothing about servers and browsers and client requests that interact in models, views, and controllers via routes to do things that I, more often than not, take for granted. It is amazing, I have come to think, that we put so much – our personal information, our every concern, question, bodily ailment, secrets even- into our computer, waiting for its response, completely fine that we have no idea how it comes to the conclusions or creates the things that we asked it for in the first place.

But, I digress – the passage in question reads as follows, in Elizabeth Gilbert’s words:

“[Italian] Classes begin in the afternoon. So I go eat lunch (roasted endive) then saunter back to the school and smugly walk past all those Level One students (who must be molto stupido, really) and enter my first class. With my peers. Except that it becomes swiftly evident that they’re not my peers and that I have no business being here because Level Two is really impossibly hard. I feel like I’m swimming, but barely. Like I’m taking in water with every breath. The teacher, a skinny guy (why are the teachers so skinny here? I don’t trust skinny Italians), is going way too fast, skipping over whole chapters of the textbook, saying, “You already know this, you already know that…” and keeping up a rapid-fire conversation with apparently fluent classmates. My stomach is gripped in horror and I’m grasping for air and praying he won’t call on me. Just as soon as the break comes, I run out of that classroom on wobbling legs and I scurry all the way over to the administrative office almost in tears, where I beg in very clear English if they could please move me down to a Level One class. And so they do. And now I am here. This teacher is plump and speaks slowly. This is much better.”

Except I did not walk out of coder class on bended knees begging to move to whatever remedial version might exist. Although, let’s be clear, the first day of class I very nearly wanted to. Thrust into a world that I did not know, around people who spoke a language that I could not yet understand, I felt like that shotgun passenger thrust into a car, holding on to the dashboard for dear life hoping that I’d survive as we careened up a mountain I could not even see the top of. Ok, slightly dramatic, but you get the picture. The point is, two weeks ago – TWO WEEKS AGO- I just about wanted to raise my hand in the middle of class and say, sorry, is there a 1-2-3 call a friend line because I think I’m in the wrong place. I study government. Political Science. The humanities. Did I mention?

When I signed up for this program the idea of computer programming excited me but to be honest I had no idea what Ruby on Rails was. Or CSS. Or HTML. A mere two weeks later, I could model an entire computer application for you. And I can create a functioning prototype of it as well. I know how to take an idea, translate it into coding steps, and to visualize its creation, the computer syntax that will bring it to life. I can code, refactor my code, and style on top of my code. If all of what I just said sounds like Greek, trust me two weeks ago I would have stared at you quizzically as well. (In plain language, I can code things and make them look pretty, if you were wondering.)

I came to Cape Town on the tails of a busy Harvard semester. In my two weeks here, my mind has been opened to a whole new corner of the universe just as I have begun to explore one. I have rock climbed up a really big hill (Lion’s Head to be precise), I have gone shark cage diving, I have eaten South African cuisine, delved into the stories of Nelson Mandela, and pushed, pushed so many of my own boundaries. I came here a stubborn learner. Here my boundaries have been challenged, pushed, broken down. I’ve been in college three years and don’t think I’ve ever learned so much so fast about something else… about myself. To learn to speak a new language is not easy, but here I have gained a point of entry. And I’m taking it, both hands grasping for the steering wheel now, ready to take this non-stop car in the direction I want to.