Caught in the Web

Zach Loafman, a gifted St. Mark's teen, fights an addiction to the Internet.

Koani was Jessica's character name. She was 22, much older than Zion or Zach. But age doesn't matter on the Internet; it erases that surface impression, the physical information on which most of us base initial attraction. The most democratic of communication systems, the Net re-groups everyone according to intellect and interests. Zach's mother felt like this was an advantage for Zach: "After all, the average dating scene is based on images, and on the Net, all you have to go on is what people are saying."

"I've always been 16 going on 30," Zach says. "I was just myself [on the Internet], I think--maybe an unexpressed part of myself, but not entirely a fabrication. It was easier to socialize on the Net, because it isn't as personal. That person I'm talking to can't reach over and slap me or shoot me." Or look you in the eyes? "Of course, you do miss some nice things, too."

It's also easier to confront people on the Net, something Zach was reluctant to do in real life. "I have a problem with shyness. I didn't have to be shy on the Net. I had a higher self-esteem, mostly because there's no physical self-consciousness."

Zion and Koani, Zach and Jess, hit it off and started spending time talking away from Pern. From the beginning, Zach was frank about his age. "You tend to answer questions like that honestly on the Net, because it's the only way you can get any physical information yourself," he says. "Jess and I exchanged descriptions. She's an English major turned CS [computer science] major--that's like complete opposites, and I liked that." Eventually, they fell in love. Zach's first serious teenage relationship was with a virtual "virtual" person, perfect for a shy guy.

The problems started when school did in the fall of 1994 and Zach was still spending all of his time on the Net. He'd always been an exceptional student; his mother remembers when he started St. Mark's after leaving the private Lamplighter School at the end of fourth grade, and "he came out to the car after his preview visit, all excited. He said, 'Mom, I saw some math problems in class that I didn't understand.'" That's what made him choose to go to St. Mark's instead of Greenhill. Challenges turned him on, math turned him on. Schoolwork had always come easily and had never been a problem.

He was living with his father and stepmother (his parents divorced when he was 11) when the "addiction" became apparent. His parents were having to hound him, constantly checking to make sure his homework was done. Most of it was done, Zach says--or he didn't think it needed to be done. "I was 'skate-studying,' doing it during passing periods or free periods at school." And some homework, like history reading assignments, he considered unnecessary. "I didn't read much of anything for about a year. Reading requires a certain pattern that I didn't have because of the time I spent on the Net. I know a lot of history, anyway, and most of it you could pick up if you listened in class. I mean, I didn't do the reading, and I still made an 'A' the first quarter."

Zach was also taking computer science as an elective, more because he wanted it on his transcript than because he expected any illumination. His first-quarter "A" went to a "C" in the second quarter--the first clue to his parents that something was wrong. A "C" is hardly cause for parental anguish in most homes, but for Zach to slip that much, in that particular course, in one quarter, set off an alarm. "It was mostly because I was apathetic--bored and apathetic. I knew it all," Zach says. "How could I not know it? Three out of four 'parental units' are computer programmers"--all but his stepmother. His mother, Jeri Steele, has degrees in math and computer science and started programming back in 1972.

Zach was literally raised on computers. A regular family outing was the monthly First Saturday computer swap meet on Ross Avenue. "It started as a ham radio swap," recalls Jeri Steele. "Then as people became computer hobbyists, the stuff for sale changed. We bought and sold boards there before there were computer stores, when we still had to get everything through the mail." The market starts about midnight on Friday, and an entire parking lot is filled with tables of boards and monitors, some lit up in rows like blue airport landing lights to land the hackers, nerds, and computer people like Zach and his family who live half their lives in cyberspace.

But Zach didn't like computer science at school. "I like to think through the algorithms," he says. "But I don't like to write down the coding. It's drudgework." (As an example, Zach compares it to a geometric proof. He says he can see the solution quickly, but hates to write it down--coding can be 200 lines or longer. "Geometry proofs are more fun because you're showing someone how you did it.")

"If the teacher had let us use algorithmic abbreviated codes, I wouldn't mind so much. I just didn't turn in my computer assignments." Zach was much more interested in what he was doing on the Net.

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