At the risk of ruining my machismo image, I will openly admit that THE best class I ever took was Mrs. Showalter’s tenth grade typing class. It was head and shoulders above any other class I had including Clinical Psychology, Calculus II, and Human Sexuality (Although I did not miss one day of that class). While I had no plans to be a professional competitive typist, my world was forever changed by tedious finger exercises and timed tests on those old IBM Selectric typewriters.
You see, back in high school, there were two main paths of education for students. You were either on the get-a-job path or the go-to-college path. The get-a-job students went to trade school for part of the day where they could learn skills such as auto mechanics, welding, or carpentry. The go-to-college students took classes like Algebra, Physics, and English Literature as a way to prepare for the SATs and eventually, college. Today, as a sixty-two year old man who chose the college track, I regret that I did not acquire skills in auto mechanics or carpentry while in high school. You would only need to witness my circular saw techniques to understand that “measure twice, cut once” does nothing to improve my skills. And for the record, even though I supposedly learned about “pi” in my college-bound math class, I have never once brought it up in a conversation.
Typing was one of the few classes that had overlap between the two educational paths. Some students saw typing as a way to get a better job. Others saw it as a skill that would come in handy in college. What none of us knew back then was how important typing would be today. I mean, I’m typing this blog right now—and I haven’t looked at the keypad ounce, uh, once. Because of that valuable class, I can type without looking. In other words, I never have to hunt and peck.
You could call Mrs. Showalter a “stereo-type-ical” instructor for a typing class in the 1970’s. She wore neatly pressed skirts and blouses, her hair was perfectly permed at the beauty parlor each week, she wore glasses that attached to a chain around her neck, and she always had a pencil shoved into her hair. Occasionally she removed the pencil to scratch at what I assume was the residue from hair spray on her scalp. But her instructions were perfect. I can still hear her staccato voice commanding us to practice our finger exercises by typing, “A-S-D-F…J-K-L-Semicolon…Space…A-S-D-F…J-K-L-Semicolon…Space.”
As the class progressed, we went from routine finger exercises to sight reading where we had to type a passage without looking at the keys. This was relatively easy unless you had to type a number or the parenthesis symbol. No one had command of the top row of keys so we usually had to sneak a peak, hoping that Mrs. Showalter was more focused on one of the problem students in the back. The kids in the back were the ones whose parents forced them to take typing but who were perfectly content to communicate verbally or through handwritten notes. They had no interest in J-K-L or even Semicolon.
The ultimate test of our typing abilities came in the form of timed tests. We would be given a specific amount of time to type as much text as we could. We would be graded on the number of words we typed minus the number of mistakes we made. From the middle of the semester forward, timed tests were part of every class and contributed to our participation grade. Sometimes, however, the timed tests were exams and counted for a greater portion of our grade.
My buddy Dave Williams sat next to me during typing class. We were both good students and while we didn’t set any land speed records, we typed better than most. That meant that we could sacrifice a few of the routine timed tests without it affecting our overall grade. Knowing this, we regularly engaged in Selectric keyboard warfare.
Once, when we were in the midst of a timed test, Dave raked his hand across the keys of my typewriter causing so many errors, I ended up with a negative grade. A few days later, I used my foot to disconnect the electric cord on his typewriter. By the time he got it plugged back in, the test was over. This went on for the entire semester. However, because we never accumulated enough bad scores to affect our grades, we sailed through the class. I guess you could say we were Type A students. Ha.
When I got to graduate school, my typing skills became critically important as I had to write several papers each week. I got so proficient, I could usually crank out a paper the night before it was due. One night I was working on two long papers that I had to turn in the following morning. I was typing furiously, trying to finish everything before midnight, so that I could get some sleep. About 8:30, the carriage on my typewriter stopped working. For those of you who have never typed on a typewriter, the carriage held the paper and when you got to the end of a line, you hit the return key and the carriage rotated while a spring pulled the carriage back to allow you to keep typing on the next line. It turns out, the spring on my carriage had broken in half and without the spring, the carriage would not return. We weren’t allowed to submit handwritten papers so I was in a jam.
I sat there trying to figure out what to do. It wasn’t like I had a stash of typewriter springs stored in my tool box. In fact, since I never took a shop class, I didn’t have a tool box. I knew if I didn’t turn in my paper on time, I’d get a lower grade. Then, I got an idea. I found an old bungee cord that I had used to tie down bags on my motorcycle. I attached one end of the bungee cord to the typewriter carriage and the other end to the bottom of my desk. I typed a line of my paper and hit the return key, anxious to see if this improvised repair worked. My typewriter flipped up into the air, flew off the side of my desk, and landed upside down on the bed. Thankfully, the mattress cushioned the fall. I kept adjusting the position of the bungee cord until I finally found the perfect balance. I finished my papers by midnight, got an A on both, and celebrated the next night at a local bar. That last part is still a bit fuzzy.
I look back on the wonderful instruction I got from Mrs. Showalter and realize how I had taken the class for granted. Sometimes we don’t understand how an experience or an opportunity will pay off in the long run. As a rule, we should probably pay more attention to what we learn and how those skills might come in handy down the road. I suspect there is value in almost everything we do but we just don’t always connect the dots.
In fact, who would have guessed that a motorcycle bungee cord would have saved my grade in graduate school. Can you imagine what I could have accomplished if I had also learned a trade? With my trusty bungee cord, a role of duct tape, and a hammer, I might have built my own typewriter. Or maybe note…uh…not. Danggit.