THE WORDS “RAM,” “KILOBYTES” AND “megabytes” are scrawled on the blackboard as 12 sixth-graders file into Steve Wozniak’s after-school computer class in Los Gatos, Calif. Though taught by one of the world’s most successful computer nerds, this isn’t a session for grinds: Wearing cowboy boots and jeans, the bearded Wozniak passes out coupons for ice cream at Swenson’s and finalizes plans for an outing to a Neil Young concert while his students eagerly pop open their laptops.
Teaching might seem an unlikely job for Wozniak, 43, the wunderkind who cofounded Apple Computer in 1976 and left the company nine years later worth more than $100 million. Having failed in 1982 as the promoter of the unprofitable US rock festival in San Bernardino, Calif., Wozniak also struck out with an advanced remote-control system six years later. Only in 1991 did he find his new calling when son Jesse, then 9, discovered computers. “Bit by bit, I showed Jesse how to plug in a hard disk and explained cables,” says Wozniak.
Inspired, Wozniak began an ad-hoc class for Jesse and four of his fifth-grade classmates in the summer of 1992. He bought them $4,000 Apple Macintosh PowerBook 170s and taught them three limes a week a I his Silicon Valley office. “It was an experiment to see if they were given a lot, how far would they go?” says Wozniak. Soon, the class was dismantling computers and plugging into information networks.
Last fall, Wozniak expanded Jesse’s class to 12 and started a new one of 20 fifth-graders. Meeting after school, the hand-picked students tackle advanced tasks like designing spreadsheets. Says Ashley Brown, 11: “Steve has a kid’s mind so he knows how to get us to understand—he has given me a whole new point of view.”
Giving students a new perspective is Wozniak’s greatest pleasure. He has helicoptered over the Grand Canyon with his charges, taught them how to fill Oreos with toothpaste and provoked parental double-Lakes by allowing them to drink Coke from beer cans. “I don’t want them to become nerds, thinking that only computers are important,” he says. “But I support anyone who’s called a nerd. They are some of the most trustworthy people.”
Wozniak, the eldest of three children, was raised just 15 miles from the seven-bedroom home in Los Gatos, where he and his family now live. His father, Jerry, was a Lockheed engineer; his mother, Margaret, a house-wife. As president of Homestead High School’s electronics club, he taught himself how Lo construct computers. Says Wozniak: “It was my life.”
After dropping out of the University of California at Berkeley in 1971 (he later finished in 1986) and taking a job as a Hewlett-Packard engineer in Cupertino, Calif., Wozniak began building a computer at home with parts from the company’s stockroom. Working with fellow Homestead High alum Steven Jobs, he created a model faster, smaller and simpler than anything the market had seen. “When I heard the number $50,000 for our first sale [to a local computer store], I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
By 1981, Apple had over 1,000 employees and annual sales of $500 million. While Jobs became chairman, however, Wozniak shrank from the corporate fray. Openly scornful of management when he left, he says, “I was meant to design computers, not hire and fire people.” Still, he receives a stipend from Apple (making less than $12,000 a year) and retains stock. These days Wozniak says: “I never could have dreamed this good of a life.”
That happiness is due in part to his third wife, Suzanne Mulkern, 43, a lawyer. They first met in seventh grade and became reacquainted at a 1988 party. Married in 1990, they share their home with Mulkern’s kids from her first marriage, Adam, 18, Daniel, 17, and Marci, 14, and Wozniak’s—Jesse, Sara, 9, and Gary, 5—who split their time with former Olympic kayaker Candi Clark, 39, his second wife. (Wozniak’s brief first marriage was childless.)
When Wozniak isn’t tutoring, he spends his time like any self-respecting eccentric: watching movies four hours a day, eavesdropping on cellular phone calls (“The airwaves belong to all of us,” he says) and buying sheets of $2 bills from the U.S. Treasury Department. Still, Wozniak has plans to get a leaching certificate lo become a full-time elementary school instructor. “I think if kids arc going to have a hero in the computer world,” he says, “they might as well have a good one.”
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Gatos