When 14-year-old David Watkins starts teaching a children's computer class at the Sierra Madre Library next month, he will approach his students with a confidence born of experience.
It will be the third class the Pasadena High School sophomore and aspiring computer scientist has taught.
"I thought the teacher would be a real old person, but David was better than an older teacher because he was fun and he taught us very good and was nice," said 11-year-old Jamey Griffiths, a sixth-grader at Pasadena's Wilson Middle School. Jamey, along with 11 other 8- to 12-year-olds, spent a month this summer learning computer basics from David in the library's Walt Wesley Computing Center.
"He wouldn't get mad or flip his lid at anyone," recalled Chris Frankowski, 10, a fifth-grader from Monrovia.
"He taught us a lot. I wanted to know about printing out exercises and he did the basics and taught me what I wanted to know," Chris said.
David got his first teaching experience last year, when his high-school computer teacher heard that Field Elementary School in Pasadena was looking for a freshman to teach basic computer skills to fifth-graders. She recommended David and he got the job.
"It was the first time we had a freshman with the knowledge" the school required of a student teacher, said Field Principal Donald Glenn. "He developed a great rapport with the kids.'
And when the library, where his mother, Donna, heads the children's section, started looking for a student to teach its first structured children's computer class, David was an obvious choice.
"He's not a prodigy," Donna Watkins said. "He's a B-average student and has to work hard for grades. But he's found something he really likes to do."
David started using a computer at age 10, when his family got one at home. He took to it quickly, teaching himself. In the eighth grade at Eliot Junior High School, he enrolled in his first computer course.
In addition to teaching the library class this summer, he worked as a data-entry clerk at American Pacific Securities Corp., a Pasadena brokerage firm where his father, Dennis, is a vice president.
Mary Williams, literacy coordinator for the Wesley Computing Center, said she knows of no other library in the area that offers computer classes.
"We don't have organized instructional computer classes for our libraries," said Margaret Ong, chief of public services for the Los Angeles County Public Library, adding that some branches have a few public-access computers and that patrons at those branches are given only minimal instruction by library staff.
Williams described David's course as "very successful and great for the kids."
She said that the library, which already offered adult computer classes, had received many requests for a beginner's class for children. David taught under the city's Recreation Department and received $12 of the $15 each student paid to take the course. The rest went to the city, Williams said.
Armed with an outline of what he thought the ungraded introductory course should include, David guided his charges--equally divided between girls and boys--through the ins and outs of software compatible with both the library's Apple II+ and his own Apple II-E.
Using educational software which included mathematics, reading and typing games, David said he achieved his goals for the course, which familiarized the children with computer terminology and components and showed them how to use various programs and print out data.
Students got immediate after-class practice on the library's Apple computers--all donated to the library or acquired with state funds.
"They picked it up really fast and it became a lot of fun," David said, adding that he kept the upper age limit at 12 to ensure his authority.
At first, he said, class members, which met in 1 1/2-hour sessions once a week in the morning or early evening, were quiet and somewhat intimidated by the cold blank screen--until they saw what happened when they made it come to life themselves.
Most students wanted to master math skills, and many found it beneficial to tackle numerical problems in game form, a practice that also helped them with their homework.
Some, like 9-year-old Cynthia Shewmake, a fourth-grader at Holly Avenue Elementary School in Arcadia, decided as a result of the class to ask their parents for home computers.
"We have one computer in our whole school and you don't get to use it much," Cynthia explained, echoing a common complaint about school computer shortages and the subsequent lack of hands-on experience.
Next month, David will teach another monthlong children's class at the library and may offer a slightly more advanced class at a later date. He says he's committed to teaching the youngsters because "they'll need it in the future pretty soon."
But for now, he can be satisfied that his small alumni are learning to walk before they run.
Like 8-year-old John Tuttle. "I learned not to break the disk, to turn the computer on and off without breaking it," he said.