Behind the Blackboard: Still touch typing after all these years

Rick Wagner • Feb 6, 2017 at 6:00 PM

During my junior year at Volunteer High School, I took half a year of typing.

Called “personal typing,” it was an introductory course at a brand new high school, the consolidation of Surgoinsville and Church Hill in the Hawkins County school system. (I was from Surgoinsville for what it is worth.)

Little did I know then that my career would be in journalism or that as a newspaper reporter I would type often, mostly on a computer keyboard, but in the beginning on a typewriter. The beginning, in this case, was the fall of 1980.

Other than typing, those of us in the class, including one of my friends, Randall Frost, learned something else: Things at a brand new high school don’t always work out as planned.

We spent the first six weeks or so without typewriters, the second six weeks with typewriters but no tables, the third six weeks with both and the fourth six weeks with a substitute since the teacher, Debbie Garrett, now Debbie Merritt and recently retired, had a family issue with which to deal.

Then came the half-year mark and I went on to another class after Christmas. No more of those manuals and a few electrics with caps on the keys or blank keys to promote the learning of touch typing versus hunt-and-peck typing.

I never really thought much about it, but I typed an essay on my mother’s old Sears portable typewriter, a manual, and won a trip to Washington, D.C., through a Holston Electric Cooperative contest. We got to see the top of James Watts’ bald head at the White House the summer after John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan. 

As a freshman at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I brought that old Sears and typed papers on it. Then, in 1984, my parents for Christmas gave me a computer, an IBM PC Jr. I did lots of term papers on it using a Brother daisy-wheel printer that was pretty much like an electric daisy-wheel typewriter, and after college I eventually bought another computer used and then a series of them.

While at UT, I worked at the student newspaper, The Daily Beacon, which used “dumb” terminals. Through all this, I still used the touch typing I learned back in the fall of 1980 the first half of my junior year. The secretary for student publications, Linda Graham, now retired but still living in Knox County, said I held my hands and fingers just the correct way she was taught.

I still touch type, which means I don’t have to look at the keyboard or hunt and peck except when I use a keyboard on a smart phone or tablet, in which case I hunt but sometimes do not find. Just ask any of my friends and family and they’ll tell you the legendary stories of my wayward texts. My fingers are too big or the letters on the screen too small.

Today’s secondary school students learn keyboarding. According to Sullivan County Supervisor of Elementary Education Robin McClellan, “Every elementary school (in Sullivan County) has incorporated a keyboarding class into their related arts (music, P.E., art, library) rotation.”

Bo Shadden, supervisor of secondary education for Sullivan County, said personal typing, which morphed into keyboarding, used to be taught in high school but now “as time permits, it’s taught” at the middle and elementary levels.

However, the typewriter and computer keyboards in use today are still roughly the same as the one in use since the typewriter was invented.

A few years ago I was at an education conference in Kingsport where a speaker talked about an alternative to the QWERTY keyboard, the one designed in the infancy of typewriters so typists would not jam up the machines by going too fast. Computer keyboards don’t jam like computer keyboards, but I remember then Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie sharing my disbelief in having to learn the new keyboard configuration, despite how efficient it might be. It is called the Dvorak simplified keyboard, the Dvorak keyboard or Dvorak layout.

If I get just one space off while touch typing, yjod od ejsy oy epi;f ;olr/ (Translation: this is what it would look like). I suppose you get the point. Changing the whole layout might take some practice, to say the least.

The moral of this story is you never know when something you learn in high school might be useful to you. And the next time I see my high school typing teacher, I’ll tell her she did a good job. I never did quite get the hang of the touch typing for numerals, and the function keys weren’t on those old computers, but a touch typer I became nonetheless.

Yjsmld z,td/ Hsttryy/ (Thanks Miss Garrett.) I mean Mrs. Merritt.

Today’s Lesson: Touch typing may be a lost art to a generation of folks who grew up texting.

Bonus question: Ejsy fprd yjod dsu?

Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times-News and can be reached at rwagner@timesnews.net or (423) 392-1381.