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Mister, Mister 

Three kids in CompUSAshow how deep the divide

My partner and I were in CompUSA in midtown Manhattan looking for utilities software. Suddenly, in the Mac section, a young voice beckoned to our left.

"Mister, could you help me find a game on here?" A little black boy, 7 or 8, was talking directly to Todd (correctly identifying the actual tech expert in the family). The kid was desperately trying to find something he could do on a G3 PowerBook. Todd clicked around and found Solitaire -- more an executive time-waster than exciting, but it was something.

The boy didn't know how to mouse. We showed him how to click on the cards and drag them into place. Another voice called from behind: "Mister, could you help me?" We turned and saw another black boy, about 12, complete with skullcap, frantically hunting a game on a G4 desktop. Todd pointed him to an iMac loaded with Nanosaur. He showed him how to click and maneuver the dinosaur through the prehistoric minefields.

"Mister... ." Brother No. 3. After we had him set up and started to leave, the first boy came running after us. "Mister, mister, can you help me draw on this computer." Back to the drawing board.

Finally, once the trio was duly occupied in the Mac section, Todd and I slipped to the register. We looked at each other without saying a word, in complete agreement. When a family of three city minority boys are so desperate to do something, anything on a computer that they'll ambush an "old" white couple in CompUSA on a sunny Saturday afternoon to show them how to mouse, a damned digital divide exists.

In recent columns I've pressed the need to give kids equal access to tools and, ultimately, well-paying jobs. This is a common refrain for me: I figure if I preach it often enough, perhaps I'll motivate a couple more people to mentor needy kids, another company to donate decent computers or more folks to lend their support to equal-access initiatives in Washington.

But, every time, I get the same harangues. Minorities don't like computers. The free market will get around to everyone someday. Tax dollars shouldn't fund such initiatives (just corporate welfare for tech companies, it would seem). Scholarship money -- such as Bill Gates' recent $1 billion minority-only gift -- should go to white kids, too.

Then, I meet three eager, bright black boys who don't know how to click and drag. They present a much more compelling argument than any of the elitist e-mail missives I've gotton. Somehow, a geek brigade using their tech to tell me minority kids don't need computers strikes me as ridiculous as an overstuffed food reviewer telling the poverty-stricken they don't need food. It's sick irony.

Fortunately, other people, particularly hero teachers in the trenches, lend support. One elementary teacher in rural Maine writes, "I couldn't agree with you more on the have and the have-not of the computer world."

She describes comparing her 2- and 4-year-old granddaughters whose upper-class parents can afford computers with the poor kids at her school: "When I see them at the computers, I think my students will never have the opportunities my granddaughters will have."

The teacher, who is the computer coordinator at her school, describes the efforts to which she and her retired husband go to equalize the playing field for the poor students. They put their own money -- $1,000 to $1,500 a year -- into the computer lab. They fix up old junkers that companies donate to give to the school's poorer families.

It's never enough, though. "Lots of us out in the world of education (are) trying to reduce the gap ... , but we need help with equipment and money to upgrade old computers," she says.

The rest of us have the power to give that help and support. It's time to shed the blinders.

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