The idea of this piece came from an article by Shannon H on Medium. She laughs at herself about how much keyboards have evolved in her lifetime, like she’s so old. Keyboards? Hell, I had to learn to type on an ancient upright typewriter of the manual persuasion. (Even before IBM Selectrics existed.) Typewriters were invented in the 19th Century and had changed little by the time I took the class.
Shannon H, unlike this writer, says she loves to type. Me, I’m grateful for spell check; not that it always saves me. However, I’m willing to bet she isn’t old enough to remember the early DOS command, “format c: /s.” A classic piece of coding if there ever was, only don’t try it at home. It might still just work. Most people assume Bill Gates’ Microsoft invented DOS, but they didn’t; they bought it.
This piece is a spin-off from her article, only it had a mind of its own and wanders a bit.
My mother thought if she sent me to Saint Anne’s Catholic School it would help form my character, which it did, but probably not how she’d intended. Kindergarten, then grades one through eight, I did nine hard years under the nuns. I may have had one nun who liked me, a few who tolerated my existence, and others with downright animosity toward boys in general. I suppose if I’d been forced to wear a starched wimple in the heat of a sweltering summer, I’d have been mad about it too. In some respects the Patriarchy got paid back–back in the day.
Quite a number of Saint Anne’s students were Air Force brats–that’s what they were called. Mendel Rivers was assembling his Carolina air force to go with his army and navy in case the Civil War wasn’t over. Shaw AFB was just on the outskirts of town, and their parents, hoping a strict Catholic education would help form their children’s characters, sent their children in droves. However what formed them was being Air Force brats, having to transfer to a new school in a new town once every few years–and me by imitation, though I was stuck in that sleepy, southern town. I learned a great deal about the world and some good swear words. Beginning with that bit about patent leather shoes–er, no, wait–that was what the nuns counseled the girls in the class.
Saint Ann’s first school building was a tired, clapboard and wood-framed affair that held grades one and two in a single room. In times past, there were lots of one room schools in rural areas; perhaps this was once out at the edge of town with all eight classes held there? More likely it had been an earlier chapel that was repurposed when the red brick church was built beside it.
I vaguely remember the wooden floors and the hollow acoustics. And the little girl who I had a crush on, who I was sure was about the most wonderful creature on god’s green earth. One day I found her school photograph on the floor next to my desk. Did I need to return it? Then I got an invitation to come for a play date at her house! Her mother had called my mother. Holy crap! Yes, there was a God! Then she became sick and had to cancel the date.
I wasn’t smart enough then to know that if a girl gives you her picture and invites you for a play date, then you’d better bring your best game.
I think she moved shortly after because we couldn’t take it further (and exactly how much further could it have gone beyond holding hands?) It’s also possible that her Air Force father was being transferred to another base; it had to be her father seeing as there were no women in the military. Again, Patriarchy. Though Air Force kids had the coolest lives, and they wore those sheened jackets with an embroidered dragon and “Guam” or “Okinawa” on the back. Very cool.
By the time I reached the third grade, the church built a new school. Low slung brick and glass affair, with steel canopied loggia running the school’s perimeter instead of interior hallways. This one had air-conditioning, an upgrade from the old wooden oven building. Much like the public elementary school my sisters attended.
And just like the public schools, the school wasn’t integrated. Saint Jude’s was the black school. Separate but equal was an actual law in South Carolina. Not that I knew it was a law, only that there were no blacks in my school.
The nuns held a graduation ceremony to conclude eighth grade. “End of the road, darlings.” I had worked myself up to a very important duty–carrying notes back and forth between the school and the convent a few blocks down the road, riding my bike. I suspected they just wanted me out of their classrooms for an hour or so.
And though I wasn’t anywhere close to head of the class, the nuns asked me to say something at graduation to thank the nun who taught us, and in a note in return she thanked the class for whatever small gift we gave her. I didn’t actually recall this major step in my public speaking, but after digging through boxes of saved junk, I found the short note on note cards and the nun’s thank-you card written in beautiful long hand. I probably saved it as evidence in case they tried to take back the diploma.
I also found a mimeograph copy of the story I’d written à la Jack London that a previous year’s nun tried accusing me of plagiarizing. Boy did that hurt. My mother must have typed it; I couldn’t type in grade school. And I got a diploma. Even I knew you didn’t hand out diplomas in eighth grade.
In 1962, I entered ninth grade for my first attendance in a public school. In addition to the usual math, English, history courses, touch typing was mandatory for graduation in the Sumter public school system, which seemed utterly ridiculous, as I wasn’t planning on being a secretary. They exempted me from shop classes since I was hoping to go to college. Both my sisters had to take Home Economics, which irritated them, since they’d been doing housework since they were little tykes. Myself, I got out of some of the household chores because I was a boy. Patriarchy RULES!
Though I did do yard work as a kid, and later, in high school, Byron and I decided we’d take down the southern pine growing right at the corner of the house. So he brought his old POS pickup, and a long line, and we hooked it up to the tree and proceeded to cut it down. It took every horsepower that pickup had to keep the tree leaning away from the house. After the fact, we knew we’d gotten lucky.
But back to typewriters. In the ninth grade, we sat in a classroom with a phalanx of old-fashioned upright typewriters and were introduced to the art of touch typing by the school’s art teacher, who also liked practicing taxidermy in the art classroom. His claims to art were his paintings of ducks (ducks flying, ducks swimming, ducks in bayous, ducks in winter). So the taxidermy was… right, of ducks.
Matisse did an entire series of paper cutouts in his later years, and Mr. Singletary liked ducks.
I wasn’t the fastest nor the most accurate typist, which became quickly clear. This was before correction tape, so when I intended to type ‘the’ and instead hit ‘teh’ there was no way to correct it except to type x’s over the offending letters and carry on. When you got near the end of a line, you had to catch the ‘return’ arm  to bring the carriage back to start the next line. The keystrokes required strong, committed fingers, which greatly impaired my typing speed. I could write faster longhand (aka cursive). I entertained myself by writing minimal longhand strokes, like it would save on ink. I think the typewriters may have been left over from the World War 1 typing pool, because…
… in the 60s, South Carolina was ranked 49th state in education, surpassed only by Mississippi, even though they dueled it out to see who could spend less on public schools. Most of us white boys were going to work after high school, and the blacks were heading straight for the cotton fields so they didn’t need no high quality education either. Which balanced out well ‘cause they wouldn’t get one.
The local black high school had a math teacher who herself had only a high school education (separate but equal, mind). Having said all that, this being a mostly truthful story, I admit the Sumter public education system gave me enough coursework to apply for college. Several high school teachers stand out–my English and journalism teacher, Ms. Yates, and my history teacher, Mr. Flounders who kicked my ass. Flounders taught a college-level history class and graded accordingly; he said my test scores disappointed him. Ms. Yate’s brother who taught biology, was gay or at least openly effeminate which was pretty incriminating, and I was surprised he was a teacher. Gay was a bad enough offence, and everyone knew they were pedophiles. Mr. Flounders, as it happened, had an affair with one of my classmates and later divorced his wife to marry the girl, but at least he wasn’t gay–and several classmates acknowledged his manliness.
Ms. Yates never married, but she taught me essay writing and what I know about journalism, who, what, why, where, whatever. Since my sister had been editor during her time in high school, I wrote articles for the high school newspaper and contributed to the lit magazine. I wrote a handful of feature articles for Clemson’s The Tiger back when Dick Harpootlian was editor. He’s now a member of the South Carolina Senate, but back in the day, given the pro-Vietnam War sentiment in the state, he was accused more than once of being a Communist for what he was writing–what we all were feeling about the war.
Mendel Rivers was pissed as hell at being pelted with marshmallows when he came to Clemson. I thought it was a perfect pacifist’s war protest, but maybe it wasn’t manly enough for the old white haired congressman.
My son has never learned to touch type, and at this point, it would be a waste of time. He invented his own typing method, and can type as faster than I can. Show off.
Our predecessor architectural firm (LBC&W) had IBM Selectrics for the typing pool when I started in the early 80s. A few years later, LBC&W bought a Panasonic Senior Partner (the original luggable). To describe it, it looked like a smallish, heavy suitcase. You unfastened two clasps to release the top element–which was the keyboard–and propped up the computer containing the 4 inch x 6 inch green screen. A small floppy was then fed into it to upload the OS–I’m not making this up– then removed and followed by inserting a second floppy that held the apps, because it had only one floppy drive. Had only two apps, a 1-2-3 spreadsheet and WordStar for a word processor. State-of-the-Art. I saved that sucker for thirty years just to say I used it a few times.
The point being: finishing this last paragraph, autocorrecting as I go along, I still miss my first grade girlfriend, but I’m glad Mr. Singletary made me hang with the touch typing. I never did get into stuffing ducks, nor carving and painting decoys to look like ducks.
We do like to visit Peking Gourmet in Culmore for their roast duck.
 Do I need to explain what a ‘carriage’ is?