When I started high school in 1984, we had a core curriculum of English, Science, Maths, Phys Ed, and Social Studies. Then we got to choose electives. My parents sat me down to discuss choices. My father, an academic, wanted me to study Latin. ‘It’s very useful,’ he said. My mother, a social worker, thought I should take typing, ‘It’s very useful, too’ she said. I thought they sounded reasonable, and as I liked languages and admired my mum’s speed on the typewriter, I took both.
I was quite good at Latin, though a little easily distracted and creative in my translations, so I never pulled the great marks of more focused students. I was terrible at typing. At least, I was quite good at typing if I could look at my hands, which of course we weren’t allowed to do.
How I loathed typing class. Not so much the act of typing: I quite enjoyed the rote-learning of it, which in some ways wasn’t so different from the rote learning of Latin verbs. ‘a s d f’; ‘amo amas amat’ Similar processes. We weren’t supposed to look in the back of the book, but we never had to wear the bib of shame if we were caught peeking.
‘You can’t look at your keys,’ I was told one day in typing class when I protested about being forced to wear bib of shame, a piece of oilcloth with cords that stretched it from your neck over the keyboard so you couldn’t see your hands. ‘You’ll never be a secretary if you’re always peeking at the keys.’ When I responded that I didn’t think I was going to be a secretary, I was rewarded by detention. As one of the meeker innocents at that school, I thought that was particularly unfair.
The day that I came home with a typed picture of Elvis, using only Xs, my mother inquired frostily ‘So this is where my tax-dollars are going?’ After the elective finished, I didn’t carry on to advanced typing classes. My father came home with an Sinclair ZX computer that you plugged into your tv, and my typing improved out of sight, mainly from trying to learn programming with my younger brother. Turns out, we didn’t need a bib, just a screen to gaze up at, and the lure of computer games in our future.
These days typing class seems almost more of a blast from the past than Latin class. I suspect it’s given way to word processing classes, and something more advanced. Latin classes are the preserve now, mainly of private schools. If my parents wanted me to learn Latin now, they would have to send me up the road to a fancier school, instead of down the hill to a sprawling comprehensive.
Even in those days (the 1980s) Latin was considered a little unusual. It was kept on at my high school in memory of the former headmaster, who had died the previous year in a mountain-climbing accident. We studied in a demountable ‘prefab’ class, heated by a pot-belly stove, and seated at a motley arrangement of desks, some of which were lower than the splintery chairs, which ate the back of your tights. Some years there were several classes in one. By seventh form, we were down to four students. Three of us went on to study Latin at university. I’m the only one (I think) who uses it in any way in my work.
Once, on a train, an old lady told me that ‘every woman should know how to shoot a gun and ride a bicycle.’ She paused and looked at me impressively. ‘But she should never admit that she can type.’ I should have asked her what she thought about Latin.
I will admit that I touch-typed this entry, using all my fingers, keeping my hands neatly on the home row. This does not mean I’m available to do other people’s (read: men’s) typing. It does, however, mean that my parents were both right (in this instance). Latin has been useful for me: in my career and in my learning. And so has typing. I never did become a secretary. But I have become a classical receptionist.
– Liz Hale