Friday, September 7, 2007

What About That Quick Brown Fox, Anyway?

Nowadays, my fingers fly over the keyboard, hitting the letters they seek (for the most part). Bystanders think I am just playing, so they stand behind me, peering over my shoulder as my words appear on the monitor. They look at my hands at work, the monitor, then me, and mutter, “Wow.”

The dubious and obviously unbelievable skill of typing pretty darned fast was a long time coming. In fact, it nearly cost me a failing grade in, of all places, summer school.

At age 13, I took two summer school courses at the high school I would attend that September. I loved school so, for me, summer school was a bonus. We wore sandals and shorts and felt the heat of the day emerge while we were in the cool shelter of the classroom. I planned to take fun classes to let me begin developing skills I wanted to have: typing and gymnastics. The latter was no more than a late wish to be graceful; athletic and perky, I never felt sure-footed, particularly next to my sister the dancer.

Typing, on the other hand, was a necessary skill for a budding writer. Poems and stories emerged from my hands through pencils and pens, and landed soundly on the page. However, Papa Hemingway and Slyvia Plath, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King all sat in front of a typewriter, so I figured all writers had to learn the skill. Plus, every campus newspaper required typed copy. I had to learn.

I had seen keyboards before, and typing guides, but they remained as much a mystery as shorthand scribbles (another skill I was convinced that, no matter how much I could use, would evade me my whole life). If I survived typing, shorthand would be the next monolith to fall. How convenient both skills would be to a journalist!

On the first day of typing class, the room filled with teenagers I had known for my entire academic career. The girls came in clutches, finding seats in groups of three or four. The boys lingered in the halls, filling in the gaps when the tardy bell rang. None of my closest friends had been interested in joining the world of typists in the years before “keyboarding” was foisted upon preschoolers. I wound up sitting on the fringes of a group of cheerleaders. I was the “smart girl,” and those who might be in need of my tutoring casually took the seats around me. They relaxed noticeably, knowing they would not have to pay attention because I would be there to tell them and teach them. Having been the “smart girl” since kindergarten, when I was whisked off the playground and plopped into a first grade classroom for my habit of reading aloud to my fellow students, I understood the benefits I derived from tutoring. However, I would have much rather preferred Beth or April sitting next to me; they would have needed nothing from me but my smile.

In the days of typewriters, a single stroke might mean the difference between a clean term paper and starting the page over. Teachers were strict: no eraser marks or correction tape. Later, dabs of Wite-Out could save a soul as long as the liquid was applied lightly and the typist was patient enough to wait until it dried. Wet Wite-Out made a keystroke look like a footprint in wet sand: sunken, deep and (on the page) permanent. In those days, typing was a risk, and I wanted to avoid the pitfalls to which I watched others succumb.

When the teacher pulled down the typing screen, I studied it carefully. Letters were jumbled about in an apparent random order. What was the ”a” doing next to the “s”? Later, I was told typewriter keyboard setup was changed soon after typewriters first were manufactured because typists using the first setup typed too quickly. It makes sense: it was the only way to comprehend the bizarre letter arrangement.

My first day in typing class was spent trying to not understand why ASDF were together. The exercises were slow and laborious, and my fingers, unused to that cramped space, refused to stay on their own keys. My fingers worked in unison, and lightly. Typing a semicolon repeatedly put a few Ls on the page as well. Striking the F made my other fingers want to leap off the keyboard to support that poor index finger. There was a war going on at the ends of my hands, and the good folks at IBM were losing. If any finger could hit the D strongly, I mused, why restrain the perfectly willing middle finger to the task? Give everyone a chance!

I learned the answer soon, when the second row was introduced. If the pinky wasn’t anchored to the A, all hell would break loose on the keyboard. And at least A was at the end of its row — the semicolon pinky has no wall to help mark its boundaries. Even such a simple word as “the” posed a risk, what with its letters residing on two different rows. Then three. Oh, heavens, V and B sounded alike in the air, then someone put them side by side on a typewriter — whose idea of a joke was that, anyway? Go ahead, try to type “vacuum” or “buoy” without a slip-up, I dare you. Then, when numbers and their shift-symbols were introduced, I would lay awake at night and try to make my fingers remember who needed to reach for a 2 and whose job it was to see if a 1 was up there, or if we had to remember the L instead.

In the end, I got it all down, but I was slow to committing my fingers to a letter. When I sped up, my fingers were like the legs of a newborn fawn: wobbly and all over the place. The teacher was sympathetic. He knew I was capable, just cautious. He gave me ample opportunities to practice, and he was generous with his time and tips.

Despite this, coupled with my burning desire to succeed, I could score no higher than 16 words per minute. With a score like that, I never would be a writer! I never would be a journalist! I would — have to practice, I resigned myself. It was not the most successful summer on record: in gymnastics, I discovered I still could not execute a cartwheel. I could have used a slam-dunk in typing, but it was not to be the case.

Not until my second full-time job in journalism were my typing skills put to the test. A stringer would dictate his stories over the telephone, and when no one else was in the small office, the task fell to me. The previous 10 years of typing practice set the stage for the coming of age. In no time, I was typing at the speed of his speech with few errors, if any. True he knew how to dictate, pausing every few words or phrases for the typist to catch up, but an incompetent typist still could not survive. Yet I did, and beautifully.

Soon, all stringer calls were routed to my desk, the desk of the excellent typist, and my success afforded me more practice. Now, mistakes occurred not because of my inexperience, but because my fingers were too fast for the typewriter (then, later, the computer keyboard). It took a while, but in time and with practice I finally learned to type accurately and quickly, and to wow the audience at home by my prowess at the keyboard.

Today, the idea of transmitting information instantly via e-mail or even that lately outmoded method of facsimile, coupled with keyboarding for infants, have rendered the “typist” nearly obsolete. Now everyone thinks herself or himself a typist — an idea I hope will fade soon. Frankly, between that and the myth that “talent” of writing and design are relayed in a computer program, I fear for the future of communication. While everyone can type, and hence write, not everyone can do it well, or even do it professionally.

However, no matter the future of typing, writing or even creating, I can honestly say typing taught me one unforgettable lesson: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

1 comment:

Carole said...

Those of us with mothers who were secretaries also heard often that learning to type could come in handy one day, in case that college degree didn't pan out.

So, I, too, took typing in high school. My pinky fingers could not press down the manual typewriter keys hard enough, so I avoided words with Qs, As, and Zs, not to mention + signs, brackets, and quotation marks.

One summer, I thought I would join friends in the craze of "temping". I sat for the temping test (twice) before the temp agency woman said, "Hmmmm....perhaps receptionist?" To think that I went from that to having people (who did not listen to their mothers) pay me to type their papers in college (they often had to tolerate the wet Wite-out because it was the middle of the night, and I was too tired to wait for it to dry!)

Mom proved to be prophetic--who can do ANY job today without being able to e-mail or creating documents? All of which require TYPING!

Thanks, Mom, for the advice, and thanks, Hedgehog Lover, for the memories and smiles.