The Last Half Century · The Work World

How a Stupid Typing Class Changed my Life

In 1975 I was required to take a half-year of typing during my freshman year in high school. “That’s stupid,” I remarked. “I’ll never need to use typing.” I could not see any reason to master a keyboard in a paper and pen world. Despite my grumbling, I endured the class and learned to type 25 words per minute (wpm) on a manual typewriter. At the time, I had no idea how important 25 wpm would be.

Six years later in college, I changed my major to journalism. I soon discovered one of the requirements to get into my first reporting class was to type at least 25 wpm with only five mistakes. Basically I had to pass the typing test or change my major. I knew I could type up to 25 wpm thanks to my high school typing class, but could I do it with five mistakes or less? I still remember the stopwatch ticking as I furiously pounded the keys on the manual typewriter, knowing my future was at stake. One minute later I passed the 25 wpm mark with seven mistakes.

“Do you think you can keep up in the reporting class?” The teaching assistant said as she looked at me after pointing to my seven mistakes. “You have to type stories in class,” she explained. “Sure,” I confidently replied, not really sure if I could or not. All I wanted was to get into that reporting class. She approved me for the class and I soon found out I had a lot to learn.

“I’ve been a reporter for more than 20 years,” my instructor announced the first day of reporting class. “I run the news bureau at the capitol.” I felt intimidated by his experience and immediately feared my mere 25 wpm would not cut it. “First rule of journalism,” he continued as he reached into a large paper bag next to the podium. “The newsroom runs on caffeine.” He proceeded to pull out a drip coffee maker and told us he would provide all the coffee we needed. He made a point not to provide stir sticks to mix in the powder creamer and sugar. “Use your pencil for that,” he explained. “And call me Bill.”

After we all had a cup of coffee next to our manual typewriters, Bill then asked us to type a sentence he had written on the chalkboard. The room instantly came alive with the loud racket of 25 manual typewriters— keys clacking, bells ringing at the end of a margin and the zipping sound of carriages advancing to the next line. The noise made it hard to concentrate.

I was one of the last to finish typing the sentence and when the room was quiet we all stared at Bill. “Did you hear that?” he asked. My fellow students and I looked at each other with blank expressions. “The typewriters?” A classmate finally offered. “Exactly!” Bill smiled. “You need to get used to working in a noisy newsroom full of typewriters, shouting and wire service printers,” he explained.

A few weeks later I entered the classroom before the start of class and everyone was at the windows staring outside. I joined them and immediately spotted the rising column of black smoke from a burning building on campus not far from where we stood. “Well, just don’t stand there,” Bill said when he entered the room. “Go get the story! Be back here in an hour and type up what you find out in an article that will be due at the end of class.” I felt sorry for the fire chief on the scene as 25 inexperienced journalism students descended on him with questions about the fire. We quickly learned how to work under the pressure of deadlines — that breaking news can change your plans in an instant.

The practical things Bill taught in that reporting class served me well throughout my career. He nurtured my writing skills, even though the first few articles I submitted were horrible. He taught me to have a natural curiosity about things, to thoroughly research a story as he challenged me to have more sources in the stories I submitted to him. When I worked in a rambunctious creative department in an ad agency, I thrived on the creative energy displayed in the noisy work environment. Each time I stirred my coffee with a pencil, I recalled Bill’s words from that first day of reporting class. I always appreciated the fact that somehow Bill saw my ability as a writer even when I doubted myself.

If I hadn’t learned typing in high school, I probably would’ve changed my major instead of taking a typing class in college. I would’ve also missed out on Bill’s wisdom and encouragement. Which also means I probably wouldn’t be blogging. Sometimes in life things that seem insignificant — things we are made to do that seem stupid at the time — can prove to be important to our life.

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