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In the classroom, where youngsters are being introduced to the machines as early as kindergarten, they astoundand often outpacetheir teachers with their computer skills. After school they gather at the mushrooming number of computer stores (more than 1,500 at last count) or join the computer clubs that are becoming a regular part of the youthful landscape. Huddling around any available machine, they argue over their programs, thresh out computer problems and swap software as intensely as kids once haggled over baseball cards. In the summer, they may even go off to computer camps, another growth industry, and if they are Boy Scouts, they may try for a computer merit badge.
During mischievous moments, they may tinker with one another's programs, writing in steps' that will flash an unexpected insult or obscenity across a buddy's video screen. Some try to pick the encoded electronic locks on copyrighted software, taking glee in outwitting their elders, or spin fanciful plots to break into computer networks. A few turn their skills to profit by showing baffled businessmen how to get idle, new computers to run, or by establishing Delaware-based corporations to market their own software creations. To the bafflement of their parents, they talk in a jargon of their own ("Hey, Charlie, you should have POKEd instead of PEEKed").*
As with so many other changes in contemporary life, the spark for this revolution is technological: a bit of silicon sophistication variously known as the personal, home or microcomputer. No larger than an attache case, apart from its video screen, this mighty mite packs the computing power of machines that two decades ago occupied a full room. Yet the micros, as they are affectionately called, are a relative bargain to buy and are becoming steadily cheaper. Many models cost under $1,000, bringing them within reach of schools, parents or the children themselves. Last week, in the sharpest price break yet, Timex announced it will begin selling a small home computer for a suggested retail price of $99.95.
But size and price cannot explain why computers have taken such a strong hold on so many youngsters. Certainly their interest has been stirred by a related rage, video games, whose computer-generated flashes, zaps and pings have not only all the appeal pinball machines had for their elders but go a significant step further: they pique young minds to learn more about all that electronic prestidigitation. But many experts, and most of the young operatives, agree that the overwhelming attraction of the machines is the lure of control, the pleasure of being able to think out and then make something happen, a satisfaction all too often denied children.
Lewis Stewart, 14, a black ninth-grader at Manhattan's P.S. 118, reads at a fifth-grade level, yet mastering his school's computers was literally child's play for him. Recognized by students and teachers alike as his school's best computer programmer, Lewis works afternoons as an instructor for a