Some skills take a long time to master

Some skills take a long time to master

To be honest, I cheated in my high school typing class.

It’s good to get that off my conscience, though I doubt anyone cares at this late date; I mean there must be a statue of limitations.

Er, I mean, statute.

I still type poorly, and as anyone who’s ever seen me at work can attest, it’s not a pretty sight.

“You can’t cross your hands like that,” my brother said as he watched me churn out a term paper on James Joyce the night before it was due. “You might hurt yourself.”

Keep in mind he’d been typing since seventh grade, and there I was, a few months away from finishing my freshman year, still torturing the keyboard with a style that could be labeled dyslexic.

I kept on pecking as he mused, “Looks like typing Tourette’s.”

If the admissions officer had been paying attention to my high school transcript, he or she would have noticed an academic anomaly that screamed, “This can’t be right!” Seriously, who takes introduction to typing as a second-semester senior?

It was like applying for a passport while waiting in line to board a plane to Morocco or looking around for a bat in the on-deck circle.

Some things simply require preplanning.

But trying to tell me that when I was 18 was a fool’s errand because I figured I was special, that I was destined for big things and that when it became necessary, I could simply teach myself.

It made total sense at the time.

The class was a curious hybrid of me and about 20 sophomore girls, all of whom were in another stratosphere when it came to typing. Their fingers flew, creating a rat-a-tat symphony on their electric machines, a sound so pure and efficient I could only marvel.

And as they performed their virtuosic wizardry — eyes on their text, never needing to glance at the board — I sat like the last kid at the top of the Soap Box Derby hill, unable to make use of gravity.

The thing I remember most is how sensitive the keys were and how heavy my touch seemed, so that even my best sentences ended with a series of periods that looked like pseudo-Braille run amok.

“You know,” I heard a voice say softly, “I could help you.”

And that’s how it all got started: innocuously, an innocent overture, a random act of kindness, an offer to help man the bilge pumps as my scholastic ship was taking on water, perilously close to sinking.

I risked a furtive glance in her direction, not wanting to attract undue attention and knowing I was already under scrutiny, having been shoehorned into that class as a last-minute favor to my parents, who were abashed at their first-born’s sloppy scheduling.

“I could sure use a little,” I replied. “What did you have in mind?”

And then, quick as a cobra striking a mongoose, she plucked the worksheet from my stand, slapped it onto hers and began the exercise that, had I actually done it, would have taken hours.

Two minutes later she slid a piece of paper my way and resumed whatever high-skilled task she was supposed to be tackling.

“Don’t worry,” she said with a sideways smile. “I made mistakes.”

At that point I should have slammed on the brakes, thanked her for her one-time-only lifeline and said something like, “Never again.”

I was a good Catholic boy, after all, schooled by the sisters and their steel rulers that they wielded with torturous accuracy any time I crossed the line separating childish stupidity and abject chicanery.

“Whap!” was the sound as the sleek weapon whistled through the air and found its target, a miscreant’s exposed knuckles. “Whap!”

So I certainly knew I was in a danger zone, but I didn’t care.

“That was amazing,” I whispered across the desk we shared. “What’s your name?”

In the days and weeks that followed, I began secreting album lyric sheets and record reviews from Rolling Stone, putting them on my work stand and typing them as my cohort in crime whipped out my assigned tasks with the efficiency and cunning of a CIA operative.

This is the kind of prose I reproduced in my Typing 101 class:

“I wonder whether ‘American Pie’ will be the only important song Don McLean will ever write, but that’s being premature and petty because he did write it and we needed it … did we ever.”

The next week it would be a section from “Thick As a Brick”:

“Spin me back down the years

And the days of my youth

Draw the lace and black curtains

And shut out the whole truth

Spin me down the dark ages

Let them sing the song.”

Did I think by regurgitating Lester Bangs and Ian Anderson I might become the next in their storied line? Who can know?

What I did understand was that typing was the essential conduit, the necessary skill I lacked to take what was going on inside my head and committing it to paper so that others might share it.

And maybe even enjoy it.

As I’ve said, when you’re 18 years old and you’re still relying on your eroding and eventually indecipherable penmanship to make your point, something has to change. It’s as immutable as Darwin.

Evolve or go extinct, adapt or limp off to die, alone and forgotten.

My typing class co-conspirator and I maintained a cordial and cozy long-distance correspondence through the U.S. Mail for the duration of my first semester at Notre Dame, she writing her letters even as I attempted to type mine.

I figure it was the least I could do; besides, I needed the practice.

She shared what it was like to be a junior, suddenly more visible, more popular, though she shied away from hurting my feelings.

“Don’t worry about me,” I typed back. “Go find someone goof.”

I meant “good,” of course, but by then she knew me and understood any progress I was making would be incremental.

Upon returning home for Christmas, I drove out to her house and gave her a Jethro Tull album, though I expected nothing in return.

After all, she’d already given me a gift that keeps on giving.

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