My Mom, The Advanced Typist

Re-blogging a couple posts that I wrote for a course blog last year.

My earliest childhood memory is waking up to the sound of my mother’s fingers racing across her keyboard. She was two rooms away and my door was closed, but I could still sense her fervor as she tried to meet the morning’s deadline (I didn’t realize at the time her deadline was something like “get this done before the kids wake up”). For much of my early childhood and elementary school years my mother worked from home as a typist transcribing legal documents for a law firm in our hometown. Every morning on our way to school we would stop by the law office to drop off the transcripts from the day before and pick up the next set of audio tapes to be transcribed. Even though by the time I was hearing her fervent fingers on the keyboard she had long switched over to an actual computer, when I read our assignment description I knew that I wanted to interview my mom about using a typewriter. Again: I hear “type” I think “mom”.

The most important things I learned from my interview with my mom are: 1) How shockingly little I know about what her life was like before I arrived on the scene 2) typing, according to my mother’s experiences, is a woman’s world and 3) the “technological revolution” is a lot more complex and recursive than I naively assumed it to be at the start of our interview.

My mother told me that she learned to type in eleventh and twelfth grade on a typewriter for a business course where students also learned shorthand but mostly just sat in rows each day and typed away preparing for timed tests every Friday. She continued: “So in our twelfth grade year we had a typing contest for the whole school and I was the fastest typer in the entire school […] I can type 120 words a minute with no mistakes”

My mother can type 120 WPM?! This didn’t mean much to me when she first said it, but I looked it up and as it turns out an average typing speed is 40 WPM. 100 WPM with no errors is considered a high speed. Working at speeds like 120 WPM with no mistakes earns you a spot in the “advanced typist” category. Go Mom!

In addition to gaining this more detailed picture of my mother as a teenager, I also realized throughout our interview that the typist’s world is a world of women. My mother told me “I just remember typing ‘the brown fox jumped over the whatever’ over and over again and I liked typing. And for whatever reason I wanted to type really well to make money, and my mother was a legal secretary so I pretty much set my sights on that. And back then they made a lot of money.” I had no idea that my grandmother had been a legal secretary or that she was my mother’s inspiration for pursuing that career herself. This kind of passing down of a very specialized literacy between generations of women echoes for me aspects of Patricia Crain’s argument in which the figure of the mother is very much caught up in the process of printing and imprinting. The alphabet acquires a medium, a body through the mother, and the child is meant to be seen and listening. In these cases taken from my mother’s life, my grandmother first was imprinting while my mother was listening until at some point my mother began imprinting and I became the listener.

Another role model my mother mentioned with reverence was her business teacher who encouraged her to partake in the school-wide and then the county-wide typing contest: “I guess there was a county wide test and I went with my business class teacher. Her name was Genevieve Farmer, and I’ll never forget her. She was awesome. And I went with her to the contest and they were giving the instructions to everyone, and you were supposed to flip that paper over and get it into the typewriter. And I immediately said it was over. A lot of the people next to me went to the other side and I just sat back and watched and I just marveled.” My mother’s inspiration and her mentor for pursuing typing were both women. Additionally, she found her job as a typist in order to stay home with me and my brother and sister when we were young. My mother’s acquisition of typewriter-literacy and then of computer-literacy were very much motivated by her identity as a daughter and then as a mother.

My mother’s recollections of her experiences with the typewriter brought us right up into present day, where I realized I had grossly oversimplified the development of writing and digital technologies as a linear, step by step process. When I asked my mother if she preferred or missed the typewriter in any way, she surprised me with “Enough so that I have one at my desk at work, and I use it occasionally.” I had assumed typewriters had become fossilized oddities that sat unused in abandon storage spaces or obscure museums. But, my mom has shown me that her continued use of the typewriter is not only nostalgic but functional as well. In her current profession as a legal secretary “sometimes there’s legal documents that you can’t do on a computer. The ABA, American Bar Association, still has certain forms that we have to put in the typewriter to fill out. They’re like 98 percent there. But there are one or two court documents that have to be on the typewriter.” Can you imagine? I had no idea! The American Bar Association still has documents they have not put into digital format.

At first I thought there must be a way to do these things on a computer, but my mother just hasn’t figured them out yet or is choosing to rely on the typewriter out of familiarity. She proved me wrong: “How do you explain this one, our company has a certain program to do envelopes on the computer. But I find it easier to do on a typewriter so a lot of times I’ll just use a typewriter for that. So what it is we have a predetermined format, it puts it on all four, and I might only need one label so I put it in the typewriter so that I don’t ruin four labels I don’t need.” My mom not only understands this computer technology, she understands it so well that she has learned to anticipate its flaws and chooses to use a typewriter as the more efficient means of writing technology when producing mailing labels. Picture it: she has a typewriter and a computer station sitting side by side at her desk and sometimes uses both for different purposes in a single day. Writing technologies of the past are in fact alive and well and being used in conjunction with more advanced, more recent writing technologies.

We ended our interview on a note of nostalgia. In response to the same question of preferring or missing a typewriter, my mother also said: “Yeah, it’s great because all the attorneys yell out. That’s one thing that’s weird, they miss the sound of the typewriter going fast. The clicks of it. When I’m standing there typing labels they always freak out like ‘oh I remember that.’ They like it when I use the typewriter.”

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