Doom was, of course, originally released in 1993. It wasn’t until 1995 that it saw me get in trouble at school. We had fewer games then, and especially fewer games that could run on the crappy 486s that lined the edges of my sixth form (year 12, younglings) form room.
In the mid-90s, schools decided they needed computers. No one was quite sure what for, but they were needed. The Conservative government of the time encouraged it, and local councils would provide special funding for schools to invest in hundreds of beige boxes, so that there could be computers in every classroom. For which there was absolutely no purpose. The entire curriculum was written around text books and library resources, and the only software that was of any limited use was Encarta 95. Meanwhile, a History & Politics A Level class of twelve students was sharing textbooks one between three, because the school had no budget to buy more. Computers were being used as doorstops. It was very silly.
Our form room, the geography room of our form tutor was replete with PCs. The lined an entire wall, all presumably without any useful function. And they were especially useless to students, for whom absolutely anything interesting was locked off. We could access our personal storage space, in which we needed to store nothing, and that was it. The internet at the time was a terrifying wasteland, and while I don’t entirely remember, I assume access to it was equally closed off.
We had this game we’d play. We’d try to “hack” our way past the restrictions, to gain access to Minesweeper or Solitaire, both of which were behind the same barriers. When we succeeded, we’d tell our ally in the staff, a lovely guy called Tim. He was one of two people employed by the school responsible for all this new-fangled technology. We’d report the security hole to him, and he’d close it off. Then we’d look for another. (Or run that Macro in Word Perfect that made the dragon fight happen.)
(A favourite example of a hole we found was a mysterious computer in a textiles room (because God knows textiles needed computers), that when you pressed F7 brought up server controls that no one but the IT department should have been able to access. This was so ludicrously simple, and actually allowed us to access the private files of any student in the school – we test this by filling our friend Anna’s hard drive space with pictures of horses.)
However, Tim’s boss – let’s call him Mr Ford (which isn’t his name, but I’m about to call him an idiot) – was an idiot. He was in charge, and as such seemed not to have the faintest clue about any of it. He didn’t like us at all. He especially didn’t like us when we figured out that the reason the school’s entire network was running so slowly was because he’d somehow installed Windows on it 17 times. I forget the details – it was nearly twenty years ago – but it was a colossal mistake. Silly man.
So we’ve our goodies and our baddies established. It’s also worth noting that my mum worked at the school too. She was a biology teacher there. She was renowned, it’s fair to say, for not taking any crap from her bosses. They were a bit scared of her.
Which brings us back to Doom. I think it’s fair to say that most people who played Doom in those years either only played the first shareware third of it, or had the rest copied on a floppy from a friend. My dad, somehow (I think from a catalogue) had a complete, boxed version of it. (Gosh, I hope he still has that box somewhere.) So it was that I could bring in the full version of Doom to install across all the computers in our form room. Which of course required getting past the limitations put on student logins. We had various methods, and we achieved it, coming into school half an hour early to play a sneaky game of multiplayer Doom across the classroom before our form tutor showed up.
One Thursday morning I was in at about 8.30 (I lived a two minute walk from the school, so this required a lot less keenness that it might suggest), investigating a new method of getting far more access than we’d had before. I’d heard a rumour that if you logged in as a teacher who’d left the school, you could bypass the passwords. Incredibly, this was true. In fact, all you needed were the initials of a former member of staff, and it would ask you for a password.
I deliberately picked a teacher I knew well, who’d left the school, but was good friends with my mum. I put in her initials, DH, and it asked me to set a password. She’d been a chemistry teacher at the school, so with a deliberate effort to not look like I was trying to be too deceptive, I put her password as “chemistry”. And I was in, full log-in, access to everything I shouldn’t oughtta. While fiddling around, seeing the extent of the issue to report to Tim, and of course pondering what gaming opportunities this might afford us during pre-form period, the classroom door burst open (it really was flung open) and in walked a furious-faced Mr Ford.
“WHO IS LOGGED IN AS A TEACHER?!” he bellowed. I said, chipper, “It’s me, Mr Ford!” And his face turned dark. There was the unmistakeable look of, “I’ve finally got you, you little shit.” Ignoring my cheery attempts to explain, he roared that I was to go straight to the headmaster’s office.
I had often been in some sort of minor trouble at school, but mostly because of not doing work, or mucking around, rather than anything malicious or malevolent. The head teacher was rarely involved in anything student-facing, a dithery and dreary paper-shuffling man who would only ever appear to pupils during OFSTED weeks, where he’d pretend to be a recognisable part of the school, attempting to kick footballs across the playground, people stared at him in confusion wondering who he was. Being sent to him was a big deal, no matter how much of an old fool he might have been. I had no idea which way this was going to go.
Ford marched me to the office, and I’m sure I made things worse by being the cocky-mouthed little prick I too often was (am). He launched into a nonsensical rant about how I’d been hacking the system, or whatever, and the headmaster listened. It seemed my mistake was to have used initials that while were certainly those of the chemistry teacher who had left, were also those of a history teacher who was on temporary maternity leave.
I patiently explained the reality of the situation, how we were helping Tim with security, and that I’d been exploring a flaw so I could help it get fixed. It was mostly true. I missed out the stuff about Doom. Tim was called in, and without prompting explained that yes, my friends and I were a huge boon to the IT department. And by the end of that, there really wasn’t anything left for Ford to argue. But it got better.
Following Tim, a senior teacher dropped in and explained – entirely unbeknownst to me – that he’d asked my parents at some recent function if I could check out this flaw. Weird coincidence. And then, best of all, my mum showed up. I imagine word gets around staff pretty quickly when one of their kids is about to get suspended, which was the promised punishment.
By this point the headmaster had had any power taken away from him. I’d not only established an ongoing relationship to be fiddling with computer security issues, but I’d been asked by a teacher more senior than Ford to look into it. My mum’s opinions of the headmaster weren’t exactly secret, and I think he feared her presence more than anything else. So, it was explained to me, that while there were mitigating circumstances, I couldn’t go unpunished as it would set a bad example to the rest of the school. Uh. So it was to be that I was to be suspended for “the rest of the week” (ie. Friday), but it would not be marked down on any official records.
My mum looked at him, her mouth curled into a snarl, and uttered the immortal words I’ll never forget.
“So you’re giving him the day off?”
The headmaster spluttered indignantly, and off I was sent, to a day of infamy amongst even the cool kids.
Which is how Doom got me suspended. Or at least, how Doom got me a day off school.
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