As near as the space bar

RECENTLY when a friend showed me her new word processing machine, my mind went back to my first day in a high school typewriting class. I recalled the horror of the moment when I couldn't locate the space bar of the machine. All the letters ran together. Plainly something was wrong. Timidly I raised my hand to ask the teacher how to keep the typewritten characters apart.

Her clear blue eyes looked straight through me and her mouth set in a firm line as she chose her words with great care. She said: ``I won't have anybody in my class who can't find the space bar of a typewriter. Find the space bar for yourself and find it right now.''

My face flushed as red as the bottom part of the double-inked typewriter ribbon. Blindly I struggled to find the elusive space bar. Carefully I poked every key I could see on the typewriter. Nothing happened. Finally I saw the big black bar closest to me, chiefly because my elbow jiggled it as I leaned forward to see if the bar could be behind the machine. At last I had found the space bar, within the class period.

When the bell rang, I stumbled out to a tree on the lawn and cried all noon hour. I hadn't wanted to take her old typing class anyway. It met at the same time there was a popular class in American literature chosen by all the kids who didn't have to figure out ways to earn their tuition for college. So here I was stuck with a class I despised in advance and a teacher who had the power to make me cry.

Feeling again like an uncertain student as I surveyed the marvelous new machinery of the word processor, I realized anew that what had seemed an unkind criticism when I was young had indeed been one of the kindest things ever to happen to me. First steps toward self-confidence and maturity had been taken in that moment of anguish when I searched and found the space bar.

I remembered also the morning when the teacher had said, ``I don't want any of you to resent learning to type. It's a skill which will be of use to you always. Let's be happy together as we learn typing.''

Since there were no boys in the class she said with a twinkle in her eye, ``I want you to change the familiar copy phrase to `Now is the time for all good women to come to the aid of their country.' '' She said this was not just to give us finger exercises on the extra w and o.

``It's time women did come to the aid of their country,'' she said, ``and I want all my girls to learn to be good citizens.''

Everybody who took her typing classes was admonished also to learn shorthand. Such dictation as we received! For one day she banged her book shut and said, ``I'm bored reading this, year after year. Can't any of you find anything better for me to read to you?''

We scouted around in magazines and newspapers in our homes. A more bizarre collection of dictation material never was assembled.

One girl brought a short story from a confession magazine. Teacher surveyed this lurid print without comment, but next day she brought the girl a popular biography from her own shelves.

Little by little the quality of what each of us discovered for class dictation improved. As we returned to studying long legal phrases or difficult scientific terms, she would intersperse this with a poem about daffodils in spring, blue waves breaking on the white sands. At the end of the year each of us had a notebook filled with valuable quotations to which I still refer.

Supplementing that notebook are two books I found many years later when browsing a library book sale. I discovered the original shorthand book from which the teacher had read to us and which bore her signature.

Quickly I picked up another book of shorthand material nearby. I wanted to see if I could still decipher the characters, but instead the shorthand focused my mind on future activities. Out fell a piece of scratch paper that had served as a bookmark. On it were some shorthand phrases. At first the words made no sense. Then I recognized this as a list of reminders the teacher had made to herself.

``Bake casserole for newcomers' party -- try that new macaroni recipe -- see if M has registered to vote, solicit for the Red Cross next week, flowers for church Sunday.''

How glad I was that I could still read shorthand. Before me was a list that might well have been headed by the phrase we had used to practice our typing, ``Now is the time for all good women to come to the aid of their country.''

Here was proof that she had tried to do this herself, serving wherever she was, helping the people she met in daily contact. Again I heard the words, ``Find the space bar for yourself, and do it now.''

More clearly than ever I saw that in the 1980s life was asking me to think and act for myself in whatever situations surrounded me currently. Probably the solution was as near to me as the space bar of the typewriter, if I could keep open the eyes of my heart.

With deep humility I placed the shorthand volumes on my bookshelf. Then I reached for a pencil to make for myself a list of things I might do today to help others in a world that seems to be groping for the space bar.

Finally transcribed by love into my heart are the precious words of truth which affirm, ``Now is the time.''

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