Many people in my generation suffered enormous trauma at some point in our teen years. It was something our generation had to endure as a matter of technical necessity. It only lasted a few months, it’s true. It’s also true that we do not regret the final benefits that came from enduring the pain. But it left deep emotional scars which, to this day, are still evident, so that the mere mention of the trauma is enough to fill us with terror.
I speak, of course, of typing class.
Like soldiers returning from bloody battles, we don’t like to talk about what we went through. When we do talk about it, it is only in hushed tones and only with those who experienced the same. But doing so is probably a good thing, with cathartically beneficial results.
In the same way that the advent of peace makes it easier to talk about the horror of war, a new technology that has changed the world of typing, making it possible to actually speak publicly about our wounds from typing class.
We were only 14 or 15 years old, far too young to face the grim realities of this Vale of Tears. But there we were, suffering a fate forced on us by life’s circumstances. Fifty of us walked into the classroom every day, sitting down at our assigned desks with full knowledge that we were about to endure an hour of living Hell.
In front of us were our IBM Selectrics, the state of the art at the time because they were electric and you didn’t have to do that right-hand-wave to type the next line. You only had to press “Return.” The little silver ball filled with letters would spin and spin as you typed, hammering the paper hard. It was a huge innovation over the tangling metal rods of the manual. But there was still no screen, and you still had to use “Liquid Paper” to cover your errors (the extra erasure tape was yet to be invented). There was still paper, and carbons.
Our job in that class was to do exactly what we were told. We typed what was in front of us, and only with the correct fingers. The tick tock of the timer was always running. It was started and then it would ding. We were judged instantly. Then the timer would start again, and the bell would ding again. Then judgment. On it would go for an hour: tick tock, ding, judgment, tick tock, ding, judgment.
Everyone knew the results of everyone else’s efforts. There were no secrets. If you were fast, everyone knew it. If you were slow, everyone knew it. If you were fast but made mistakes, this counted against your speed. So your score put you in with the slow people. If you were slow and typed perfectly, you could create the illusion of being fast, even though you were not. The justice in this seemed arbitrary and the stakes hugely high.
The typing teacher hated all her students. Hated us. She made a point of not knowing our names. We were just warm bodies sitting in chairs, human machines for her to operate. She would take out her anger on us by tormenting us with a few phrases, the only ones I ever heard her say:
“DON’T WAD YOUR PAPER!” She despised that. You must set your used paper on your desk and lay it carefully in trash on your way out. But if you don’t wad your paper, how can you get back at the machine for making mistakes? No matter. You must suppress your anger. You must bottle it up. You must suffer.
“USE YOUR PAPER RELEASE!” This was the phrase, with the tonal cadence of a tedious reminder more than an instruction, that came belting out of her mouth anytime she heard the riiiiiiiip of a paper being torn out of the machine. In a class of fifty, this occurred every 2 or 3 minutes, so in the course of an hour, we would hear this primal scream between 20 and 30 times. It was far worse than the riiiiiiiip of the paper coming out of the Selectric. I still hear that voice in my nightmares.
“TURN THE PAGE TO THE NEXT LESSON!” There was no mystery, excitement, or surprise. There was no room for individuality, or creativity. The book was called Typing Lessons, and it started with #1 and ended with #200. Your job was to start at the beginning, go to the next one, the next one, the next one, each adding a letter or demanding a faster speed, and the next one, the next one, until the class ended, only to start the same grueling business the very next day.
Oh, how I begged Mom, begged! her to let me drop the class. “No,” she would say, “you need to learn this skill. You will use it the rest of your life.” I would drop to my knees with hands clasped and ask again. No, came the answer. No, again. Never. You must stay until the end.
I knew she was right that I would use the skills I was learning the rest of my life, but the fact was that typing class was a living nightmare, the source of incredible, excruciating pain, the primary force for demoralizing me and everyone else who was subjected to it. If we were giving the choice between taking the class and facing a lifetime of professional failure, we would have gladly chosen the latter.
Ah, but we learned a lesson from the experience. We learned that pain has rewards. We learned that some things in life that we do not want to do are just essential because they allow us to be better workers and better professionals later. Nothing in life is free. Developing real skills is not always like watching Sesame Street. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, face the terror, look the beast in the eye, no pain no gain, and all that.
And look how much we grew personally from the experience. Typing class not only taught us typing. It taught us about life. We learn that comfort comes from suffering, that achievement is the result of sacrifice, that to develop true excellence sometimes requires going through terrible trauma.
Only now, it turns out that none of this is true! At least, it turns out not to be true with regard to typing.
It is a new world folks! Typing class is obsolete! The new generation has been completely liberated from its horrors! Thanks to the glories of technological advance, the chains that bound us have been broken. There are hundreds of typing programs and tools out there, but one in particular has opened my eyes to the new world of freedom and human liberation: Mavis Beacon.
Mavis Beacon! What a wonderful woman. She lives on a CD that cost me $19. Install this CD on your computer, and you hear the first words of a woman who will be your friend the rest of your life. She wants to know your name, your age, your goals, your skill level. She lets you set your own pace. She is a taskmaster, to be sure, but in a loving, charming sort of way, like the greatest teacher you ever had. She cares about you.
She gives you drills, but they are fun. She judges you, sure, but in a way that makes it a challenge. She interrupts lessons with games and skill tests. You are her only student. What would you like to do? It is your choice. You choose to learn. You choose your own betterment, and enjoy it all the while. Oh, how wonderful she makes learning to type.
My eight-year-old daughter looks forward to her typing class. She can’t wait for it and wants to prolong it as much as possible. She adores learning to type and she is learning to type. Best of all, she knows nothing of the pain and suffering we once endured. Nothing at all. So far as she is concerned, learning to type is on the level of a birthday party or a day at the amusement park. Even better: she knows she is not wasting time and likes that fact too!
Now, what does this teach about life? Nothing really. It is teaching her to type. That’s fine with me. There are plenty of other things that can teach her about the benefits of human suffering. She will find this out in time. For now, Mavis Beacon has ended at least this aspect of human suffering. We should cheer this in the same way we should cheer all innovations that improve the quality of life. It is on the level of ending a plague, finding a cure for terrible disease, discovering a new fertilizer that allows more people to be fed.
What technology does is help us sort out what kinds of pains and pleasures are inherent parts of the structure of reality and what pains and pleasures come to us by virtue of our level of economic development. Sorting out the difference between the two is the job of free enterprise, and it is a beautiful process to watch. There are surprises every day in a thriving economy, where the night seems always to be turning to day.
Down with human suffering, I say! Endure it when necessary but end it where possible. Technology has made it possible to end a major source of torment for people going back a hundred years or more. It’s a new world! A world free of typing class! God bless it. May my daughter — may all children the world over — never see another war, never experience a day of hunger, and never, ever, sit in a typing class.