I learned one of my most useful skills in life in the late 1950s when I was in the 8th grade at Roosevelt Junior High School in Salt Lake City, Utah — touch typing. For that I must thank a most unusual teacher: Miss Bertha Rappaport.
Anybody who took beginning typing from her back in the day at “Rosey” could probably tell similar tales, and you might be interested in my following recollections; but before I get into the tiger of touch-typing teachers, a little background:
For the uninitiated, touch typing means to type without looking at your fingers or keyboard, much like a skillful piano player doesn’t need to look at hands or keys.
We learned on manual typewriters — I think my assigned machine was a full-size Royal — and because of that, to this day I pound the keys much harder than modern keyboards require…but it’s been decades since I last reached for the throw lever to return the carriage at the end of a line, or for that matter, change a silk typewriter ribbon. All good manual machine typists had to develop a certain rhythm so that the actual keys didn’t get tangled on their journey to striking the typewriter ribbon, which would physically press the ink onto the paper. After a while, the empty-space in letters such as “O” and “e” would fill up with schmutz, and then we would have to use a brush (sometimes even solvent) to clean them.
Young people, you probably don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, but this is an old story for anyone who learned to type before electric typewriters became common, followed of course by computer keyboards. Everything else, except for the modern ALT-OPT-CTRL-APPLE and arrow key features, I still do with a keyboard today is pretty much what Miss Rappaport taught me.
Okay, on to Miss Rappaport: First off, she was an older woman (remember, we were 8th graders; and how shall I say it politely?) and she had a barrel figure, with a stern looking face — actually, read “a little scary” into that. Reportedly, she was a Russian Jew who spoke English with an accent. Many of my fellow preppy junior-high kids thought her first name, Bertha, was hilarious; and we believed that during her breaks she would go into a nearby closet, sit on the garbage can, and drink buttermilk (although I only saw her come out of the closet occasionally, but had no idea what she was doing in there). She always wore dark clothes, carried a big tote-like bag (with buttermilk in it?) and rode away on the city bus heading for downtown SLC every day after school.
There was no question, however, that she was probably the strictest teacher most of us ever had. Everyone was assigned to a particular typewriter, and no one was to do anything unless she said so. I can still hear her in my mind yelling “stop!” at the end of each exercise.
The machines were always covered when we came in, and she made sure we always re-covered them before leaving class. Those covers also became somewhat of a dreaded disciplinary tool, as one of the worst punishments Miss Rappaport yelled out for the entire class to hear was, “Cover your machine!” This punishment might last for just a few minutes, for such an offense as her catching you looking down at your fingers and, I recall, she was always on the lookout for that error in judgment — even for trying to find “home row.” Talking to your neighbor was also a very serious offense.
As we gradually learned and drilled on the standard QWERTY keyboard fingering, Miss Rappaport expected us to develop wpm speed — words per minute — and we took many timed tests to determine this, but never at the expense of accuracy. In fact, I’ve forgotten her formulas, but one day I came in for special attention when I “won” a timed exercise by typing a net-35 wpm, but I had quite a few mis-strokes, which meant I must have been blazing away at about 50 wpm back then. This was definitely not the way to learn to type fast, she told everyone.
A couple of other things from her class still stick out in my mind:
Sometimes Miss Rappaport would have everybody stroking in unison, and anyone who couldn’t keep up or broke the rhythm might be told, “Cover your machine!”
She was also an extremely tough grader — with one big exception: There was a cheerleader-pretty blonde girl who sat close to Miss Rappaport’s desk and could do no wrong. Even when she made an obvious mistake, as almost everyone did over the course of a school year, Miss R would explain it away. I mean it was actually embarrassing sometimes; and all the boys would just laugh (after class and out of earshot, of course).
By far the majority of us, especially most of the guys, never got better than a “C” letter grade from her, and I’ll even admit I can’t remember how many well-earned “D” grades I got that year.
But you know what? I never failed, like some of the others did (they probably looked at their fingers too much) and I learned to touch type like nothing. In fact, I can’t tell you how many millions of words I’ve keyed into typewriters and computers over the years since then. Of course, I’ll look at my fingers or keyboard occasionally now, but I don’t have to — thanks to Miss Rappaport.
It’s been interesting over the years since to watch the progression of typewriters and computer keyboards, from that long-ago Royal typewriter in Miss Rappaport’s class, but the basics are still the same…and I’m glad she made me learn them. Now, if I could only remember not to pound my keys.
— Story by Mike Foley: Originally published December 13, 2009