Coming Back Home

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The summer after my junior year in High School, while all my friends were working fast food jobs at the mall or hanging out at the pool, I was taking typing lessons. To the best of my memory, there were six of us–all girls–and none of us wanted to be there in that hot, low-ceilinged room while “everybody else” was making pocket money or meeting boys. There was a lot of gum-snapping and heavy sighing during those four weeks of keyboard drills.

It was my mother’s idea. Being of a certain generation, she believed that every young girl should know how to type (and cook and eventually make a proper Martini). I like to think she had high hopes for me. As she pointed out (and rightly so), “even the most successful women have to start at the bottom.” So I went, begrudgingly, lacking the maturity to understand what a gift she had given me. At the time, it felt like some twisted, antiquated form of torture.

Our teacher was a slim, tireless woman with a voice like Wilma Flinstone. The repetition, my god, the repetition. “j,j,j,j,j,j,j,j,i,i,i,i,i,k,k,k,k,k.” The act of typing felt aggressive to me somehow, each key reaching up and striking the paper, recording our successes and failures.

“Come back home,” she would say after each practice drill, referring to the position of the hands on the keys, the two index fingers poised lightly on j and f. Home was extremely important: if the hands were just one key off, “duck” would become “fivl” and all hell would break loose. Home was where hands and thoughts were allowed to rest.

Like many young girls, I kept a hand-written diary at the time to record my deep thoughts and hormone-ridden rantings along with banal entries about the weather and my obsession with getting my ears pierced. I soon abandoned my pink-ink pen and plastic-padded diary and began typing. By the time I had finished the course, I could finger 60 words a minute. I now had a means to record my thoughts as fast as they came. Fluidly, madly, I wrote. Short stories, dialogue, life snip-its and still those deep thoughts.

What I remember most about those four weeks of typing lessons has to do with mastering a skill, but also about making mistakes.

If you’ve ever typed on a real typewriter, you know that mistakes were a much bigger deal and required a little effort to correct. Backspace didn’t exist in 1982. You’d be typing along at a steady clip and perhaps your mind would drift off, wondering what your friends were doing or what was for dinner, and inevitably, you’d hit a wrong key. And have to stop. Roll the page up. Erase the mistake either with correction tape or white-out. Roll it back up. Hoping that the page didn’t slip, willing it to find its former position. And try again. If you didn’t instictively feel the mistake as you were making it, you might even get to the bottom of the page, catch an unfixable gaff, which meant you had to start all over again . . . if you wanted it to be right.

Because it wasn’t so easy to correct my mistakes, I practiced harder, I vowed not to make them again. Because correcting them was hard and time-consuming and somehow slightly painful. But I learned from them.

As I’m typing this on my mac notebook, and my fingers are flying across the keyboard, hitting backspace, cutting and pasting, deleting entire sentences because they don’t feel right, I wonder if the ability to erase our mistakes so easily is such a good idea. It’s certainly convenient, and efficient and time-saving. But I worry about my kids. I don’t want “backspace” to become their default mechanism for coping with inconvenience.

I want them to feel the caloused pleasure of writing with a pen, know how to spell words in their entirety, not just use an acronym because it’s faster. I want them to know the musty smell of old books, the feel of pages turned by the hands and minds of past lovers of words.

I want them to know how to slow down, know what its like to eat a meal with people you love that lasts for three hours because there’s so much to talk about. I want them to spend days, many of them, with no set plans.

I want them to be aware of the greater world out there and the impact they can and do have on it. The solutions to many of our current problems may well lie in their hands . . . their capable, purposeful hands.

When they’re confronted with their mistakes, in language, life or in love, I want the solution to be a little bit hard, require a little reflection. In our fast-paced world, we all need to “come back home” from time to time, poised for whatever comes next.

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