“All my friends have left. I’m the only one who stayed."
Former librarian revisits memories of Jollyman Elementary School, the first computers ever used in Cupertino schools
When a man delivered two cardboard boxes to the school library, each waist-high and stamped with blurry black logos, Nan Ferguson never could have guessed what they contained: computers.
The year is 1974, and it is Ferguson’s first year as the librarian at Jollyman Elementary School. She’s responsible for helping 450 kids, all local, research for projects ranging from the Revolutionary war to the history of farming—and all of the information was, and always had been, found on the pages of thick, leather-bound encyclopedias.
But now they had computers, two Texas Instrument computers. Com-pu-ters.
“We don’t know what to do with these,’ the man said when he delivered them,’” Ferguson said, recalling the day they first arrived. “He told me, ‘You figure it out.’”
But she couldn’t. She was a librarian, first and foremost, somebody whose hands knew the texture of pages, who found joy in the static words inked onto paper. Computers, on the other hand, seemed startlingly alive.
“[The computer] could be programmed to say your name. It would say to the child, ‘Well done, Jeff.’ And then Jeff would gasp and say, ‘How did the computer know my name?’” Ferguson said.
But rather than being scared, the children were delighted. And Ferguson was simply happy that the computers made them happy. Her neighbor at the time, who was a US Air Force veteran, had a passion for computers and helped her program them. Soon children of all grades were learning grammar and basic math rules from these hollow gray boxes that somehow knew their names.
But it wasn’t just all work and no play. One afternoon, they all learned to play a different kind of game—one that turned out to be just as harrowing for the kids as learning multiplication.
“We played Oregon Trail,” Ferguson said. “Kids still play it in school [today].” She was even more entertained watching them play than playing herself. She laughs as she recalls how all the girls wanted to buy clothes and medicine and all the boys wanted to buy bullets.
“Of course, the boys died [in the game] long before they got to Oregon,” she said, smiling.
But those whirring, table-high computers, and the school, are both now long gone. Jollyman Elementary School, founded in 1961 and named after Cupertino’s first librarian, Fanny Jollyman, no longer exists.
And neither does the tree that was planted in her honor. Where there once was a playground and a courtyard and a library, a library where children, for the first time, had abandoned their encyclopedias to huddle around a boxy black screen with grainy green font, there is now a park.
Jollyman Park, with its new playgrounds and expanses of green, is certainly something Ferguson can consider beautiful. But when the school shut down in 1984, the idea of a new park didn’t make her any happier about saying goodbye.
“They closed the school because it was decided that people with children couldn’t afford to live in Cupertino,” Ferguson said. She couldn’t have guessed that this was just the beginning, that housing costs would only continue to rise.
Soon, her favorite part of Cupertino would be gone, too: the horse stables along Stelling Road, once alive with glossy Arabian horses, would soon be empty. Then erased, just like the school. The dog kennels on Stevens Creek Boulevard would be next.
There seemed to be no end to it. Rural Cupertino wasn’t something that could be reclaimed after it was gone. Ferguson watched, over a course of 43 years, as the orchards became streets and the stables became homes. Her school was now a park. She can’t remember what happened to the tree, but she knows that it’s no longer there.
After Jollyman Elementary School was demolished, the nearby Hoover Elementary School went next.
“All my friends have left,” Ferguson said. She shook her head. Part of the reason why she had emigrated from Scotland was the appeal of the rural American town: complete with barking dogs and a landscape carved out by fruit trees.
But as the computers laid their roots in schools across Cupertino, beginning with JES, the trees were uprooted and houses carpeted the green fields.
The tree planted for Fanny Jollyman was supposed to be maintained by the City of Cupertino, but the council was concerned with bigger things: mainly, becoming the city it claimed to be. The bonds Ferguson had with all 450 kids, who she’d known by name, eroded like the roots of Fanny’s tree.
The companies and developers that purchased land brought with them a new wave of immigrants with much different desires. Farmland was no longer lucrative nor desirable.
“The first computers in a Cupertino school,” Ferguson said. “And they...did not have very much memory.”
Ferguson’s memory, on the other hand, is vast. If she ever sees one of her former students — which she admits is rare, now that so few Cupertino kids can afford to return — she will remember their face. She always used to shock her students with how she could recognize them at places like the supermarket, could call out their name and wave, give them a smile.
That was still one thing a computer couldn’t do.