How an essayist and programmer unwittingly helped me hold on

This semester, I've been taking a C++ course. I like programming. I want to suck less at it. So far, it's going okay. My workload is heavy, so I don't write so much anymore. I don't expect it to get easier.

I find I learn programming decently by reading around - by reading documentation and forums and random pdfs I find lying about. I learn about culture and other people's personalities. Even if something isn't directly relevant to me, I still find it useful.

While trawling the internet to fix my current problem, I came across an essay by Paul Graham. It was useful, but not immediately so; it gave me food for thought, but it's not something I feel I have the free time to learn right now (I should really spend it sleeping).

Somewhere in the back of my sleep-deprived brain, I remembered...something. A website very, very similar to the one I was looking at. In fact, the layout was almost identical - but the essays were different. The one I was reading discussed different programming languages; the one I was thinking of was far less technical.

The reader might now think I'm being quite vague. To explain, I'm going to take you back seven years.

Like most adults, I was bullied at school. Like many teenagers, I did not deal at all well with being fucked over for fun and profit. Like a fair amount of young teenagers, I also had no reference frame for the world outside school: I thought society itself operated like a massive secondary school, with weird arbitrary cliques and people running around after you to make sure your tasks got done. I really had no idea that when adults talk about someone behaving "like they're at school", it's usually meant pejoratively. It probably didn't help that I went to a small boarding school in the middle of the countryside; we spent an awful lot of time with each other and hardly any time developing our personalities outside of school. I mean, at one point I didn't even think I would make it to eighteen.

When I was in my early teens, I discovered an essay called "Why Nerds are Unpopular" (if you follow the links, you'll know exactly where this is going). Looking back on it as an adult, I have more critical distance. There are things I agree with, things I think could be fleshed out better, and things I definitely disagree with.

As a teenager, it was exactly what I needed. I was an overachiever, sure. I got good grades in everything (except PE - fuck PE). But I was miserable. Good grades and shiny trophies look great to teachers, but they won't protect you when the entire year group decides to chuck bottles at your head. Everything hurt inside.

Reading the essay made the hurting stop, even if only for a little while. It made me realise that there wasn't something horribly wrong with me which meant I deserved to be bullied. More importantly, it made me realise that the world after school was bigger, that life didn't have to be about lying through your teeth to avoid being picked on. That maybe, at some point after I left school, things would get easier. So I read it again and again and again.

Obviously, on its own the essay didn't help that much. The hurting inside turned out to be full-blown depression rather than teenage drama, and unfortunately it's quite difficult to read yourself out of depression. I think the last time I read it must have been when I was around 15; after that I started to forge connections outside of my leafy bubble. I really came to see that the world was much bigger than I had assumed, that it had a place for people like me. I met my amazing boyfriend and a couple of friends who stuck by me through the last few years of school. I started seeing an actual therapist to untangle the mess inside my head. After that, I think I hit a point where I just didn't need it anymore. I had almost forgotten about it until today.

I scrolled through Paul Graham's list of essays. Sure enough, "Why Nerds are Unpopular" was still there. I clicked on it. Read it through. The entire thing.

It was the same essay I remembered. The same one that helped me through my early teens. Sure, there were bits that made me cringe. There were some that brought up years of dark memories. But I recognised it all.

I thought about contacting Graham directly, but it felt a bit...weird. It's the kind of message people send to bands - "hey, your music got me through some really rough times when I was a struggling teen". If I were to write something like that to Graham, it would read more like "Hey, I know you're in your fifties and I've barely scraped twenty-one, but seven years ago this non-technical essay you wrote in 2003 and probably never thought about again helped a struggling teenager. Oh, and I only realised you wrote that because I came across some of your work while trying to not suck at incredibly basic programming. Have a great day!"

That's a bit of a strange message to send to someone. So I'll content myself with writing a self-indulgent blog post instead.

Paul Graham, if you ever stumble across this: when I felt trapped, your essay made me realise that I could make something of myself in the adult world. You helped me to hold on, even if only for a short time. Thanks to that, adult me is doing things that teenage me didn't even know existed. You're still helping adult me with your other essays.

You helped a complete stranger push on through life. Maybe you didn't think this would happen, but it has. I don't even think I'm the only one - I think you've helped other people in my situation as well.

Thank you.