Typing was my Vehicle to Liberation

Dwight Morrow High School did not know what to do with me. I started out in the college-bound track, and about half way through my ninth grade year began to regularly cut classes. Along with the absences, for which I was excused by indiscriminately forging my father’s signature, came failures. A report card full of F’s is nothing to be proud of, but I did not care. What I needed to do was get out of my house and stay out as long as possible. On the days when I was not in school the answer came by working at a theater quite a few miles away. No one at the theater questioned me and it was a good place to be away from the prying eyes of neighbors and classmates, who wondered why a formerly outspoken and vivacious girl was now so withdrawn.

My father had remarried when I was in the seventh grade and my stepmother did not understand me. She resented her new job of caring for three children and was a strong believer in punishment. These punishments were somewhat arbitrary and included not permitting my brothers to speak to me and making me eat unappetizingly cold food alone after everyone else was finished at the dinner table and was cleaning up. This kind of treatment made the times at the theater even more attractive and safe.

Still too young to quit high school, the powers-that-be decided I should leave academics for a commercial track. This move ultimately proved to be a godsend. Although I showed no propensity for stenography, bookkeeping or typing, the typing teacher was one of the nicest people I encountered in my miserable high school years. Mr. Mills was the only African American teacher in the school. He was super kind and not prone to making snap judgments about a person’s character. This teacher took me under his wing, and although I ultimately disappointed him by failing typing, he introduced me to what has been one of my most consistent companions over the years: the keyboard. Proficiency came very slowly, as I had an obviously limited aptitude for keyboarding and failed nearly every test. I do not remember if I ever made it to Typing 2, and seem to think that I was a still basic beginner when I left Englewood.

For several years, my typing skills lay dormant until I moved to Hollywood, California, and in lieu of acting work, found two jobs that required me to type. The first was at a record company where I was hired to be the assistant to the executive. Interestingly, the reason she gave for hiring me was that I was the one person she interviewed who seemed to have no problem working under an African American. Unfortunately, and with much sorrow from the others on staff, I was soon fired for not having the requisite skills for the job. I fared better at my next office job at Pacific Vanguard Insurance Company where the typing was minimal but enough for me to learn to work my little fingers more quickly across the keyboard. Those were the days of manual typewriters and I was an utter failure at changing ribbons.

Thankfully, helping hands were available and I worked at the company until I had enough money to purchase a ticket back to New York City. Once settled, I often looked for jobs through temp agencies. This always involved a typing test, which I subsequently failed, and failed so often that I finally gave up and spent the next 10 years waitressing. At one of the restaurants, I became a good friend of Thomas Powers, an investigative journalist who later won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. He and I would discuss novels as I served him at Shelly’s near 34th Street. Thomas worked at the Doubleday Bookstore, saving money to travel. It was he who encouraged me to write about my experiences. Taking his advice, I began to type more in my spare time rather than at work.

In the days of the manual keyboard, it was possible to purchase on secondhand typewriter for about $40. The only problem was that they were so heavy, that if you were mobile it was impossible to take the typewriter with you.

Fortunately, libraries had public typewriters and I would often spend time in their solitude to type short stories or endless lengthy letters on tissue-thin onionskin. I have saved a few that friends had sent to me during those years, and remember crying over their failed love affairs and being delighted with their poetry.

It was not until much later when I started college that my typing proficiency took a considerable turn for the better. It was necessary to type term papers, and in my first class I typed 30 pages on the revolution in Angola. Something was incredibly rewarding about getting up at dawn with stacks of typed notes on the floor that were soon organized and transferred into my paper. This opus landed me an A and I was on the way to the success in academia — which had eluded me years before in high school.

When it was time to write my dissertation, I purchased an electric typewriter, which for me was a huge expense. Things are radically different today with computer screens, auto-formats and spell checks. Everything I did with the IBM Selectric® had to be perfection the first time: one sheet of paper with a carbon and carbon copy behind; if there was a mistake, the whole page had to be started all over again. It was hard work. I was emotionally attached to my electric typewriter, and giving it up was difficult. A friend helped by giving me a heavy Toshiba laptop that I used for several years. Even though my first computer was heavy and had only Word Perfect for writing, it was a difficult transition to an even faster model. Out of sentimentality, I kept that first computer for years.

It would be impossible to calculate how much time since those days back at Dwight Morrow that I have spent at the keyboard, typing, helping students, researching and writing articles. Who would have guessed (least of all me) how important it was to learn to type. It seems to me such a miracle, and I am eternally grateful to have left the academic track for a secretarial curriculum in high school.

If the real truth be told, it is not only about the typing — it is the writing as a means of expression that has held the value for me. Typing facilitated my writing and was my vehicle to liberation. I wonder how many of us — who were lonely or otherwise mistreated as children — have found their way to writing?

Sometimes, it may take years to appreciate or understand the relevance of gifts we have received. Mr. Mills, wherever you are, one of your former students cannot thank you enough.