Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Training Wheels Come Off

Sharon Wildwind

My husband and I were discussing a word processing program we use. We both allowed how we really should take the time to recreate our most used style sheets because we’ve been using the programs long enough that we can create a much more stream-lined style than we could when we first bought the program.

He said, kindly, “You’re a power user now.”

No, I disagreed, “I’m not writing my own code yet.”

But, he countered, “The training wheels definitely came off a long time ago.”

Ah, the training wheels.

The summer I learned to type Bob Dylan graduated from high school, Vice-President Richard M. Nixon visited Russia—Remember the kitchen debate? (Bonus points if you can tell me in whose kitchen the debate took place.)—and Hawaii becomes 50th US state.

In other news, in my bedroom, it was me, a rickety card table, a portable Underwood typewriter on which my mother typed her masters’ thesis in 1940, and an instructional manual entitled, The Fundamentals of Typing: a Complete Professional Course for Secretaries and Other Clerical Office Staff.

I thought that manual was terrific. It was printed on thick, slick paper with just the faintest gray tinge to it. The exquisite black-and-white photos showed the correct professional posture for typing and the hands poised delicately over the keyboard like a concert pianist ready to strike the first note. Best of all, it had this flap at the bottom, which folded back and held the book in a slightly-slanted position, so that it could be viewed while typing.

There was the requisite chapter on the importance of typing: it developed hand-eye coordination, precise attention to detail, and was the life-blood of the modern office. There were also chapters on typewriter parts, maintaining a clean work environment, proper typist attire, and how to change those pesky inky ribbons. Learning to type appeared to be a cross between taking religious vows and being entrusted with the most arcane symbols of a secret society.

The most important rule was that you must never, ever, ever look at your fingers while you worked. The fate of the free world depended on looking only at the copy you were transcribing or, should you, in a wild, undisciplined frenzy be creating your own work instead of typing what someone else had written, it was permissible to stare at that little space on the patten, where the letters emerged one-by-one as you pressed the keys.

All right then, eyes on the manual, head up, spine straight, feet firmly on the floor. You may begin.

asdfg ;lkjh

But boy, when we got to Upward Finger Extensions, Level One—I’m sorry, but even today that sounds rude—things really took off. By mastering qwert and poiuy, all of a sudden I had command of all of the vowels.

The dashing lad had a fad for hash

Of course, I had to wait for Downward Finger Extensions before I could add a period to end the sentence. Periods came along, if I remember correctly about the time Robert Allen Zimmerman mounted the high school stage in Hibbing, Minnesota to receive his diploma.

All these years I’ve been waiting to get this off my chest, so here goes. I never learned to touch type Upward Finger Extensions, Level Two, in other words the place where the numbers live.

To be painfully honest, I peeked. I looked at my fingers when I typed numbers. I still do.

In retrospect it was probably because my child-size hands couldn’t extend fully to the top row yet, or maybe it was because of my slight dyslexia with numbers where I can type 238 and read it as 283 that I didn’t trust myself to fly over the top line without training wheels.

Oh, yeah, and when I went back to school in September and TYPED my first assignment, I got into big trouble. My teacher insisted that my mother must have typed my homework for me because children my age did not know how to type.

It took a trip to the Sister-Principal’s office, where I sat at the secretary’s desk—head up, spine straight, feet dangling in mid-air because my legs weren’t long enough reach the floor—and touch-typed my way through several paragraphs of the religious catechism before the nuns believed that I had taught myself to type over the summer. Fortunately, the catechism had only a couple of number in them, and I slid past those with a quick downward glance at the keyboard.
Quotes for the week:
Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.
~Willa Cather (1893–1947), American author

Sometimes I think my writing sounds like I walked out of the room and left the typewriter running.
~Gene Fowler (1890–1960), American journalist, author, and dramatist.


Sheila Connolly said...

I learned to type one hot summer in New Jersey, when I had nothing else to do but go to summer school and pound on an antique manual typewriter. Not fun, but it worked. (My best typing speed, back when I was doing temp work, was 114wpm.)

I still have both my mother's and my father's Smith Corona electric typewriters, although I don't know if it's possible to get ribbons for them any more.

And my daughter made me buy her a manual typewriter, at an antique store that was going out of business (I think she's a hunt-and-peck typist, even on the computer).

Susan D said...

Yeah, you couldn't look at the keys, because the only reason for us girls to learn to type was to copy SOMEONE ELSE'S words. God forbid we should actually send the message directly from brain to fingertips.

(Hmm, I wonder what Anonymous is saying. Is it Russian Spam, or are they excited at the question about the Kitchen debate? Maybe it was their kitchen.)

Susan D said...

Couldn't resist taking it to Babel.

It's Russian Spam, involving such enticing thoughts as "Dip into the exotic peace, where your electronic money become reality!"

Sharon Wildwind said...

And the Russian comment has been deleted.

It's going to be a sad day in a few years, where no one has old typewriter stories any more.

signlady217 said...

I always looked at the numbers when I tried to type them (still do). I took a short 6-week class in 8th grade, and Typing I and Typing II in high school. We had the IBM Selectric machines; wonderful pieces of equipment. But I do not miss carbon copy paper for typing multiple copies. That stuff was awful! And forget trying to do corrections; even with the correction key and tape in the newer machines (loved that!), the copies were useless if you messed up. Typing II you had to have a 65 wpm w/3 or fewer errors to pass the class (I think I had between 65 and 70). My teacher typed 120 wpm or maybe even higher, and her Shorthand speed was way up there, too. She was great.

Sandra Parshall said...

Learning to type used to be a major accomplishment that often didn't happen until high school. Now three-year-olds are sitting at computers, typing away. We still have a couple of typewriters, an electric and an electronic, which was a big deal 30 years ago (it has a memory--something like 200 words). Like Sheila, I'm unsure whether I could even get ribbons for them now.

The ability to type is tremendously liberating for writers, a basic skill that we may not appreciate enough.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I learned in seventh grade. Some of my classmates from more than half a century ago remember the teacher's name. (They've told me, but I've forgotten again.) I remember the rhythmic chant, "F R F space, eyes on-the chart space," and the fear I shared with other girls that if we learned to type, we were dooming ourselves to lifelong careers as secretaries.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I kept old typewriters for a long time too: my mother's battered classic Royal, the six-pound Olivetti Lettera I took to Africa (Peace Corps, Sixties), the first couple of electric typewriters. We finally ran out of space, and I reluctantly let them go.

kathy d. said...

The summer when I was 15, my father sent me to typing school. So for a month, I took two buses and a train to business school and learned to type.

Although I didn't like it then, I later appreciated acquiring the skill and did earn a living typing for awhile.

However, although I learned to type numbers somewhat well, I still have to look at the numbers keys if I want accuracy.

For high school graduation, I was given a Smith-Corona portable typewriter, which I took to college.

Years later, my then-spouse took it to Europe and it was destroyed on an airport luggage conveyor belt.

However, he gave me his Selectric typewriter, and then the computer took over.

I still miss the Smith-Corona. I went with me through so many journeys.

Susan D said...

In 1969 I bought myself a wonderful portable smith corona and loved every little keystroke of it. In the mid 1970s, my then-husband bought me an electric version of the same, and I loved it even more. I put the manual aside for my daughter (then newborn) knowing that she'd appreciate having her own typewriter by the time she was 11 or 12.

The pair of them are STILL in my basement, covered with dust.

But I did love them so much. And they didn't include email and google and you-tube. I could actually just WRITE with them.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Thanks for all the typing stories. It makes me feel so much better to know that I'm not the only one who looks at the numbers.

kathy d. said...

I confess that I look at the numbers when at the computer keyboard, though--and at the various punctuation marks above them.