For years I resented my 9th-grade typing class which was forced only upon the girls who wanted to sing. Until I discovered the irony: because my high school made girls learn to type in the 1980s, I was more than prepared for the information technology revolution of the 1990s.
In the typewriting classroom, an unwieldy beige typewriter covered each metal desk. Desks were aligned from the blackboard back in three rows of two desks astride , like soldiers frozen midmarch. There was a whir and clatter all class long, and an electric hum filled the room even before our fingers stumbled over letters in a staccato off-rhythm. The room smelled of ozone, metal, ink, and the dust that had accumulated in the grease between metal levers.
Only 9th-grade girls sat before the typewriters. Boys—for there never were enough boys who wanted to sing—were in choir every day, both 9th- and 10th-grade boys assigned to the 10th-Grade Mixed Choir. Girls, on the other hand, were divided into 9th-Grade Girls Chorus A and 9th-Grade Girls Chorus B. We sat in the typing classroom every other day–the days we were not in choir. The two swarms of sopranos and altos came together in an overcrowded choral classroom during the rehearsal weeks before the Holiday and Spring concerts, trying–only somewhat successfully–to blend their tones for “Jingle Bells” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
On alternate days, I would dread turning right toward the typewriting classroom rather than left toward the choral room. I would start by placing both hands in home position over the keys, index fingers hovering over F and J. It didn’t matter if I wanted to take typing or not; if I excelled at academics or needed special tutorials. I was a girl in 9th grade and wanted to sing, so I took typing class Tuesday, Thursday one week and Monday, Wednesday, Friday the following.
I resented typing, for its boring and rote lessons, for its lack of intellectual stimulation. I wrinkled my nose at the “AS as As” exercises, sometimes adding a rebellious extra “s” to spell a bad word. I sighed loudly when the shift key stuck and made me mis-type. I hissed through my teeth when I hit two adjacent keys at the same time, and the metal letters caught in a logjam of metal arms.
Typing class seemed to me to be a vestige from earlier more misogynistic times, when women went to school and aspired, at best, to the duties of secretary. The intent of the typing classroom, with its metal desks and humming electronic behemoths, had been, I imagined, to provide women the main skill necessary to qualify them for a lowly position in the workplace. With a 9th-grade typing class, you could graduate high school, or even drop out at sixteen, with the skills necessary to earn a modest living serving men in higher positions.
Our typewriters had corrective ribbon spools of white ink, which never quite matched the color of the paper which we rolled between platen and feed roller, turning the platen knob till the top edge of paper peaked above the ribbon, ready to be marred with our typing textbook’s ugly arrangements of letters and punctuation marks.
I graduated to the 10th-Grade Mixed Choir with a sigh of relief. Never again would I have to sit in the ozone-scented room of deafening clatter.
Freshman year of college, email was introduced to those of us at large universities. I clicked on my computer, loaded up the Pine email program, and hovered my hands in home position on the computer keyboard, index fingers over J and F. And when I started to compose, the words came onto the screen as fast as I could think them. When professors asked for papers to be printed on computer, it took no time at all to transfer the words from my handwritten notes into a streamlined report. After I graduated from my masters program, when I began to work in investment banking, then international development, and then information technology, I never had to hunt and peck so haltingly that the thoughts got held up in a logjam as my fingers tried to catch up. Instead, I flew ahead of older people in more senior positions.
In the end, the skill that to me felt like an embarrassing relic of a passing age of gender inequality, ended up delivering me to higher and better opportunities. That typewriting classroom gave me perhaps one of the most marketable skills I had in a world dominated by computers.
I try to remember the irony of 9th-grade typing class when I feel resentful about learning what seems to be an unnecessary skill. I never know when it might come in handy.