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Published in Print: April 23, 2003, as Two Decades, Light-Years

Two Decades, Light-Years

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"Computers and computer-controlled equipment are penetrating every aspect of our lives."

A Nation at Risk

What I remember most vividly about the typing room at South Burlington High School were the bright ceiling lights and the standardized rows of blue IBM Selectric typewriters, all facing the front of the room, their users waiting for tapping instructions.

At first, we performed rote drills to help our fingers memorize the location of the typewriter keys. As we became more skilled, we copied text passages, forced to type as much as we could under teacher-imposed deadlines, while our ever-alert instructor watched to make sure we touched the keys without eyeing them. My passages were often riddled with typos—hence, I got a C in that class.

Looking back after 20-some years, I would have to say that typing class was the height of my experience with technology at South Burlington High. Apparently, a handful of students worked with a mainframe computer that was set up in some secluded crevice of the building. But I never knew it existed.

Today, that brightly lit typing room no longer exists. It has been transformed into a state-of-the-art 3-D animation lab, a place where scores of students learn to manipulate the same technology that Hollywood uses to make movies, architects use to design buildings, NASA uses to design rockets, and advertisers use to lure consumers.

The room is now as dark as it once was bright: The window blinds are kept drawn to protect the computer screens from distracting sunlight. Red lava lamps decorate the animation lab, which is home to the "mushroom people," as the lab junkies who thrive in this cavernlike atmosphere have called themselves for years. The teenagers here spend most of their time working independently, getting help from the lab director and assistant when they need it.

Tim Comolli, 59, the lab director and an English teacher, is the unlikely revolutionary who has transformed what began as a single computer in a paper-storage closet into a nationally recognized program for which students have designed animations for local companies and universities. His students have showcased their skills at the world's largest computer-graphics trade show and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Comolli, wearing a traditional blue blazer and yellow tie, laughs when thinking how much his career has changed over the past 38 years. Before becoming a teacher, he was a disc jockey for a radio station in Montpelier, the state capital; at age 11, he was featured on the cover of Billboard magazine as the youngest DJ in America. With that background, he became the English department's audio and film teacher when he started here in 1965.

But it is just in the past decade that his role as a technology reformer has evolved. Some irony is in that evolution, because one teacher described Comolli as a technophobe when computers first appeared at South Burlington High in the late 1980s.

During one of Comolli's morning classes this winter, with the temperature outside hovering around 5 below zero, Ty Dusablon, 18, a tall senior wearing a green, short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt over a turtleneck, agrees to have his imaging project critiqued by the class.

"The thing I wanted to accomplish with this project is realism," he tells the class as a 3-D rendition of his bedroom is flashed on a big screen. The image includes scratches on a wooden desk, a music boom box, and a wall poster.

The student evaluators are mostly complimentary of the work. But some question whether Dusablon really achieved his goal of realism, because no dirty clothes are lying on the floor. The room is simply too neat.

Dusablon chuckles under his breath and tells them he's trying to design a realistic image of his room as his mother would like to see it.

Says Comolli: "I'm doing now what I always dreamed teaching would be."

—Kevin Bushweller

Vol. 22, Issue 32, Page 8

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