how i learned to type: a personal timeline

As I type, my fingers glide easily across the keyboard. I can type around 80 words per minute, depending on the words involved, the demands of punctuation, and my confidence with the material. Eighty is a high number, but as in so many things, raw speed doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I type quickly enough to keep up with the work of forming a good sentence, quickly enough that I don’t think of the keyboard as an obstacle. I don’t think of the keyboard as anything, actually. It just is. I think T, and quickly, unconsciously, my left forefinger moves to strike the letter. Then a “T” appears on the screen. This is so automatic, so instantaneous, that while writing the previous sentence, I had to pause and think about which of my fingers is in charge of the letter “T”. Maybe it’s because I rarely ever think about the individual letters. I think of the words, and—clickety clickety clack—my fingers just make them happen.

This degree of automaticity is remarkable. Touch-typing requires that you memorize the locations of twenty-seven keys controlled by nine different fingers, and that’s just the letters and the spacebar. Most of us (whereby “us”, I mean people of my tech-savvy generation, give or take a decade) perform this complex dance effortlessly. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Typing is a learned skill, if a ubiquitous one. How odd, then, that I barely remember learning it. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and see what we get.

Stage Zero: Terror, Confusion

I can still vividly remember my family’s first computer, a hand-me-down from more affluent relatives. The computer was made by IBM, and like all computers at the time, it was a clunky gray box. It sported an eight-color CRT monitor with pixels the size of Legos, 64 kilobytes of RAM, and a floppy disk drive that read actual floppy disks. Its version of DOS used a shutdown sequence which asked the user to type “exit”, then to input a number corresponding to the color of a sticker on a surge protector my family didn’t own. This terrified me. Every single time I shut down that machine, I worried that an innocent slip of my finger would send the computer into nuclear meltdown. I mean, who knew what powered this thing? Look at all the keys, for God’s sake. What kind of lunatic would arrange letters that way? I was sure the keyboard alone held enough power to reduce our house to nothing but an oversized burn mark. Needless to say, though I do recall typing a couple of school projects on the thing, I wasn’t very good at it.

Stage One: Kremlinology

I’m in middle school, I think. I had signed up for a class called simply, “Computers”, and I was really enjoying it. In addition to learning the basics of how to use a computer and some very (very very very) elementary programming, students also had the option of learning to type. My memories of this time are jumbled and hazy. I believe the typing lessons were self-guided. If by the end of the semester you thought yourself sufficiently skilled, you could take The Typing Test. The Test was simple, or so I’d heard from other students: the teacher would come over to your computer, they said, place a cardboard box over the keyboard and your hands, and make you type. I, for one, did not believe that The Typing Test existed. Typing was something done by adults, who had jobs. In fact, I knew there were adults whose entire job consisted of typing. I had seen it in movies, like Jumpin' Jack Flash, starring Whoopi Goldberg. Surely, our teachers didn’t expect mere children to be capable of the sort of skills that could get you into trouble with the KGB.

At the end of the semester, a couple of industrious students did, in fact, take The Typing Test. It was like watching a magic trick.

Stage Two: Swimming Upstream

My grandfather tried to give me typing lessons. From out of his vast archive of collected stuff, the place we referred to simply as “the office”, he produced an electric typewriter that had been branded as “travel-ready”, in the sense that it had a handle, and you, presumably, had the upper body strength of a Ukranian field hand. In the depths of the office, my grandfather also found a manual on learning how to type. I remember that it contained the sentence, “Strike the key quickly, as if it is red-hot!” No matter how quickly I struck the keys, however, every letter reverberated through the house like a gunshot. Well-intentioned as my grandfather’s lessons were, I was already falling for computers in a big way, and had little interest in learning how to use this archaic, phenomenally loud machine.

I’m fairly sure I’m still in middle school at this point. What I know for sure is that I’m in Mrs. Salmon’s Advanced English class, and Mrs. Salmon expects all final drafts to be typed, presumably because her teachings are so Advanced. By this time my family has upgraded to a more modern Packard Bell computer. It’s fast enough to run Windows 3.11 and has a great copy of Corel WordPerfect on it. Thus I sit in my family’s perpetually cold, finished basement, hunting and pecking my way toward the completion of my last paper for her class. As I enter the third hour of meticulously transforming my handwritten rough draft into a ten-page typed final, I know with perfect certainty that I hate Mrs. Salmon. I content myself by mocking her name. While most students dwelled on her obviously hilarious surname, I found myself fixated on the “Mrs”. Who on Earth would ever consent to marry this sadistic slave driver?

Every paper I typed for school was set in Times New Roman, bold weight. This served two functions. One, our printer wasn’t a very good one, and unbolded characters invariably came out looking insubstantial and hard to read. Two, bold characters take up just slightly more space than regular ones, meaning that I could type shorter papers without having to obviously fudge the margins or the line spacing. This was probably my earliest lesson in typography.

Stage Three: The Harsh Tutelage of Ms. Plural

Junior high. I must have discovered the internet at this point, as I remember being a fairly competent hunt-and-peck typist by this time. All this really did for me was reveal my shortcomings: I wasn’t as fast as I wanted—no, needed— to be, long words felt like a waste of time, and having to look at the keyboard every time I wanted to type made it difficult to multitask. I wanted to do things properly, so I willingly enrolled in a typing class. Like everyone who took the class, I expected a light workload, an easy A, and a practical skill at the end of it. What I hadn’t bargained for was Ms. Plural.

Some people feel that the institution of tenure should be abolished. Had these people ever met Ms. Plural, they would have found their mascot. From what I could gather, she had been teaching typing long before computers had entered her classroom. They seemed to confuse her to the point of visible fear, but she was too stubborn to try to learn about them. In any case, she was utterly unequipped to teach with them. For instance, she was absolutely terrified of computer viruses. We were prohibited from so much as changing the wallpaper on our desktops, lest this be mistaken for the influence of some nefarious hacker attack. She would blame virtually any standard computer process, normal or otherwise, on viruses. In what I can only describe as a stroke of evil genius, one student managed to install a copy of Grand Theft Auto, all seventeen 3.5" high density disks of it, onto his computer. When Ms. Plural asked just what the hell he was doing, he claimed he was installing antivirus software. She bought the lie without so much as a second glance, which is remarkable given her otherwise short fuse.

Our typing exercises came from a manual that had clearly been written with typewriters in mind. We set our typefaces to Courier New, made sure our settings allowed for exactly 72 monospaced characters on each line, and dutifully hit Return when we ran out of horizontal space. Backward as it was, this all went swimmingly until the day Ms. Plural decided it was time to teach us the trick of centering a title on a page.

“There are 72 characters in a line. So to center text, count up the number of characters in your title, INCLUDING SPACES!! Then subtract that number from 72. Divide the resulting number by two, and you’ll know how far to indent the line.”

“Can’t we just press the little ‘Center’ button in Word?”

“Go to the principal’s office, young man.”

I swear to God, this happened. I also swear to God that I was not the young man in this exchange. In fact, I was never the young man giving her trouble. At this point in my life I was the very model of a teacher’s pet. I simply couldn’t bring myself to antagonize Ms. Plural, despite her breathtaking incompetence. My restraint did not, however, prevent Ms. Plural from calling my parents one evening to report that I was responsible for disrupting her class that day. I hadn’t disrupted the class, of course, I just happened to be sitting in the seat nearest to her when it happened. That was all the evidence she needed. My parents later informed me that “some crazy woman from your school” had called to bother them.

Over the course of that year, under the tutelage of an erratic, short-tempered, possibly narcoleptic instructor, I learned to touch-type.There wasn’t enough time in the year for me to properly learn the number row. It’s still a bit of a blind spot for me, but in the intervening fifteen years I’ve more or less pieced it together, and it turns out that we don’t use the number row all that often anyway.

Stage Four: Adaptation

I’ve had one further “learning to type” experience since junior high school, when I started my first real job out of college. The job involved a lot of data entry, and after my first week it became obvious that tapping in the data using the number row just wasn’t going to cut it. Two days later I had successfully taught myself the numeric keypad. Not that it’s terribly hard, mind you. I mention it because the numeric keypad is almost comically more efficient than the number row. I wondered how I’d ever lived without it. Within a few weeks I could enter data almost as fast as I read it, the quick, confident strikes on the keypad and Tab key ringing out as decisively as the typebars on my grandfather’s old electric typewriter.

Stage Five: Reflection

So last night, in the midst of a rather poorly timed bout of insomnia (guess who had to be up at 6:00AM today!), I idly thought to myself, “I sure do type a lot. How the hell did I learn to do that?” And now here we are.

I think that the act of typing is interesting because it is both mundane and miraculous, or put another way, it’s an incredibly complicated task that is now thought of as a basic, essential skill. You won’t get anywhere these days if you can’t type properly. That’s what my grandfather was trying to get at, in his own way; it’s why he enthusiastically dragged out a disused typewriter and tried to get me to learn. For him, typing is something done by doctors, lawyers, and men of import. In his mind he was preparing me for the life of a successful man.

Mrs. Salmon, too, was trying to prepare me. You could argue that we were maybe a little young to have an instructor demand that all submitted work be typed, but honestly, better to hit these things early rather than late. As a teaching fellow, I’ve seen the students who come to higher education woefully underprepared for the work expected of them. Mrs. Salmon was a thorough, methodical, and generally excellent teacher. Her typographical requirements were just an extension of that.

Ms. Plural, on the other hand, was not a good teacher, at least by the time I met her. She was alternately aloof, aggressive, unfocused, paranoid, or negligent. In other words, she was in the early stages of dementia. I’m sure that the other faculty noticed. I’m also sure that they were too polite to do anything about it. Unfortunately for all parties involved, her students both noticed and did things about it. We took advantage of her fluctuating mental state on the way to an easy A. As a student, I wondered how she could be so stupid. As an adult, I wonder how I could have been so blind.

This is not the place I expected to end up when I started typing today. Still, I’m glad I did this. I’m especially glad I could do this with a keyboard, typing out my memories as fast as I can recall them.