Lucky Skunk

A simple reflection on judging


I made the formal move to Los Angeles on July 1, 2004 and as I zipped up the 401 just before turning right onto Wilshire, the radio announced the passing of Marlon Brando.    It was fitting in a way that my entrance into LA was heralded by the death of my favorite actor and someone to whom I was compared during my modelling days.   The next song to play as I wound down Wilshire towards my new digs in Beverly Hills was Tom Petty’s Free Falling.  An irony, which will make sense to you if you knew that Brando lived on Mullholland Drive.


This move came after years of back and forth between LA, Vegas and West Vancouver.  I use the term ‘formal move’ because while I already had been living in the States, it was in 2004 that I gave up my house north of the 49th parallel.   One of the other things I had given up was volunteer work, and I struggled to find an organization suited to my constant travelling.   But now I had roots.  Well, for a while, but that’s another story.  Thus, I became a volunteer in LA County.



I was overwhelmed after searching the terms volunteer+ Los+ Angeles, so honed it down to something like technology+ volunteer+ los+ angeles and came upon an organization called Crossing the Digital Divide (CDD).  CDD enhanced the lives of thousands by giving the gift of knowledge by teaching vital computer skills to vulnerable adult populations.  Founded by Kathleen Patton (1951 – 2014), its mandate was to simply, teach computer skills to those adults who needed it the most. 


I was tasked to a small group that worked in a halfway home in Van Nuys a couple of times a week to teach basic computer skills to ex-convicts and parolees.  On my first visit, I didn’t know what I was thinking.  I walked towards my classroom and the hallways were a cornucopia tough looking mostly Latino and black men and women.   These students were gang bangers I thought.  Why the fuck did I park my brand-new BMW Z4 out front?  I am going to get robbed or worse, stabbed.   Then it got real.


I got to the classroom and went to the front to meet my co-teacher, and we went about turning on the computer stations. 


As the class filed in, I moved towards the front and remembered that cliché in every prison movie; “They can smell fear, so act tough”.  I did what was necessary.   I walked up the biggest guy in the room and dropped him with a one punch.  Um no.  I didn’t.


Looking into the class, I didn’t see thugs, or gang bangers, or ex-cons.  I saw scared adult men and women who had been incarcerated during the dot com boom.  Admittedly some were there because they had to get the credits, but for the most part they were a group who wanted to know more and better themselves.   There was some cross chat, but nothing more than the type in between Gabe Kotter and "Vinnie" Barbarino in that iconic 70’s sitcom.


We started the first class by getting into the simple terms such as keyboard, screen, internet and so on.  Most of the first day’s instruction was about looking at hardware and looking at the guts of a hard drive.  Remember, this is 2006 and pre-iPhone.  Selfie wasn’t even a word. 


My second day arrived, and I felt good about things.  The students greeted me with cheer that rose to applause when I told them we were actually going to turn on the computers.  Today’s instructions were easy.  Turn on the computer.  Click on the icons on the home screen  Open a browser.  Search for a few terms listed on the chalk board.  Easy Peezy. 


I looked about the class and because we were short of computers, most of the monitors had two students each save for a few.  I notice one fellow sitting in front of his monitor alone and staring into it.  This man was African American, about 6’ 7” and 300lbs.  He was massive.  And honestly, he kind of looked scary as he had some tattoos and a big scar under his eye.  All of the other students had purposely it seemed, left him alone.



I walked over and pulled a chair beside him and asked him how he was doing.  He looked at me and I sensed a combination of embarrassment and sadness in his eyes.  He said that he had just been released from prison after serving 26 years for murder and that this was his first time in front of a computer.  He said, he didn’t understand how this thing called a mouse worked.


A mouse.  He had never seen let alone used a mouse.  How did I frame this?  The definition is as follows:  A computer mouse is a hand-held pointing device that detects two-dimensional motion relative to a surface. This motion is typically translated into the motion of a pointer on a display, which allows a smooth control of the graphical user interface. 


Well, I knew explaining it like that wouldn’t work.  So, I did the next best thing, and placed my hand over his, gently lifting it onto the mouse.  I wasn’t sure how this would go over.  A complete stranger grabbing another man’s hand.  I have big hands, but mine dwarfed his.  Like I said, he was one big guy.  We rolled over the mouse-pad and began clicking on icons on the home screen together.  Then we opened a browser and surfed for a while.  All the time me directing his hand over the mouse.  As we finished we both looked at each other and each got watery eyes.  It was and is to this day, the most humbling experience I have ever had during my years as a volunteer. John, at the age of 47 in the year 2006 was using a computer for the first time. 


I spent more time with him thank the other students and tutored him after class a number of times.  His mother brought me a cake.  I met his sisters.  Kind people who cared. John opened up to me during the weeks we spent together, and I got a limited sense of the black struggle in America from his inner-city perspective over coffees in the halfway house.  It was a point in my life where my understanding of racism in America transcended previous my knowledge, or better, my lack of knowledge.


John finished the 6-week course and received a passing grade.  It was pass or fail.  His fellow students recognized that he had the most to learn due to his circumstances, and during the course, he was never again alone.   I often wonder about him and hope that somehow, he found a skill in computers and is coding somewhere in Silicon Valley. 


About Patrick Smyth

Patrick is writing a book called “Engage”, a collection of non-fiction (true) stories about interpersonal business relationships.   Selected chapters of his book may be found at www.luckyskunk.com