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Digital Virgins

Afraid they're being left behind, new computer users find a guide to the online world.


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Forget Facebook and Foursquare, memes and tweets. What would life be like if you'd never laid your hand on a mouse?

Every Wednesday morning, people who have never before used a computer arrive at the city's East End library for the free Meet the Mouse class. They're determined to face the electronic beast at last — because they need the skills for a job, feel disconnected, or just because they're curious about this whole Internet thing.

“I don't know how I made it this long without knowing something about computers,” says Samuel Stephens, who appears two decades younger than his 81 years.

Stephens retired in May 2009 after 36 and a half years sorting mail for the Postal Service and 26 years with the Army before that. He was never late to work, not once, he says proudly. Never called in sick.

Stephens says he always wanted to learn how to use a computer, but never took the time. So a year ago he started attending the library class.

He's a star student, but he's still learning. “Like if someone sends you an e-mail, I don't know how to — ” he struggles to find the right word. “I don't know exactly how to get a copy.” Print, he means. So Stephens used his typewriter to type out all of his friends' e-mail addresses. He keeps the list neatly folded in his pocket.

It's difficult to be offline when increasingly, public notices, community news and personal communication all happen online. “I do feel like it's a new form of illiteracy,” says library associate Sarah O'Neill, the class instructor.

Despite broad increases in the number of Americans with home Internet access, there continues to be a digital divide between black and white, rich and poor. Black families are catching up, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which recently reported a 22-percent increase in broadband adoption, year over year, among black households. Despite the increase, 56 percent of black families and 67 percent of white families reported having Internet access at home.

Among older residents, the numbers fall even more. Only 31 percent of adults who are 65 and older have home Internet access, Pew reports.

Jeanette J. Roane, 62, has a computer but doesn't know how to use it. She's come to class for the first time this morning with her daughter Annette Coates, 47. Roane carries an oxygen tank, and Coates is exhausted from last night's 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at work.

O'Neill, the class instructor, starts from square one: how to hold the mouse (don't squeeze it) and how to click (“push down here with your finger”). Relax, she tells Roane in the soothing tones of a yoga teacher. “Just take a deep breath, and move your hand around in a big circle,” she says.

O'Neill brings up an online exercise designed to teach the fundamentals of interacting with a computer. Lesson one: Click on the underlined number you see on the screen.

Inch by inch, Roane scoots the mouse toward the blue numeral. The cursor hovers over the link, flickers into a pointing hand — then skids away. Roane accidentally right-clicks, causing a cryptic options menu to pop up. She waits for O'Neill to show her how to make it go away.

For an experienced computer user, watching Roane is agonizing. It's difficult to fight the urge to pick up the mouse and help. But that's exactly why the classes are needed, O'Neill says. Her students' children and grandchildren don't have the patience to teach them: “They just have it in their blood, and they can't get over how stupid you can be.”

After about an hour, Roane gets the hang of clicking on links, buttons, animation and pictures. The next lesson is double-clicking cartoon firecrackers. “Oh wow,” she says as the first one explodes. She laughs.

Demand for public computers has spiked sharply in the last year and a half, East End branch manager Veronica Holloway says. This Wednesday morning, about a dozen people, young and old, line up outside the library at 25th and R streets. As soon as the doors open at 10, they all go straight for the computers.

“You'll see that at most of the libraries, most of the time,” Richmond Public Library Director Harriet Coalter says. The library system offers about 200 public access computers, and users log 280,000 sessions on the computers each year. In the city's current four-year capital improvement plan, $7.4 million has been allotted for technology upgrades at the city's libraries.

But even the fastest computers are worthless to people who can't use them. So O'Neill will keep teaching the basics every Wednesday, as she's done for the last five years.

It usually takes just two or three sessions for someone to become comfortable using the computer. In the first class O'Neill covers using the mouse and basic navigation. In the second class she introduces the Internet and Google. In the third she helps students set up an e-mail account and find sites that interest them.

“Then they're gone,” she says. “And that's what I want.”


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