How I tapped into my success

Why We Wrote This

‘Learn to type,’ my immigrant mother urged me. It’s an ‘American skill.’ 

AP/File
Students practice typing at the Katharine Gibbs School in Boston (ca. 1940).

Shortly after I graduated from junior high school in 1968, my mother began repeating her mantra: “Learn to type, and doors will open for you, Pam.” 

It was nearly Pavlovian. Anything remotely connected to typing – an image of a typewriter, hearing the word “type” – could elicit this statement from her, often accompanied with finger-wagging and a small yet audible “humpf!” I would respond with a sighed “Yes, Mom” or, when out of her view, a much-practiced eye roll. 

When my mother and father came from Guyana to the United States, she brought her memories, photos, and a recipe on yellowing paper for rum fruitcake. She also brought her sewing and cosmetology skills. Sewing secured her a full-time job as a finisher in New York’s garment district, and cosmetology garnered extra money from occasional hairdressing work. 

Typing was not on her résumé. To her, it was an essential “American skill.” That meant it was up to me, her American-born child, to learn to type. She raised the stakes considerably when, the summer after I graduated from junior high, she gave me a burnt sienna Olivetti portable typewriter for my birthday. 

“Thanks, Mom, but I can’t type,” I gently reminded her. 

“That’s going to change,” she answered, also gently. “Soon.” 

Mom was a woman of her word. “Soon” arrived just one week later, when we took the bus to ever-busy Steinway Street in the New York City neighborhood of Long Island City to the Crown Business Institute, which was tucked in among the shops. Besides typing, the institute offered classes in stenography, bookkeeping, and other office skills. My mother practically pushed me through the door.

Inside, my eye fell on rows of students typing in front of bulky Smith-Corona or Royal typewriters. Each was curved purposefully over a spiral-bound typing practice book. Beginners picked their way around their keyboard while more accomplished typists performed dazzling digital feats, producing the machine’s distinctive clackity-clacking music. 

I was as impressed as I was skeptical that I would ever achieve such proficiency. But before I could utter a protest, my mother had enrolled me for six weeks of typing lessons. Now there was no turning back. 

Every weekday morning I reported to Crown for lessons that began at 10 o’clock; by noon we were finished, after which I went home, fingers aching from the stiff manual machines. 

As the lessons progressed, Mom began to show me a side of herself that I had never seen. The usually mild-mannered woman morphed into a drill sergeant who made me practice my typing strokes over and over until I’m sure that even my Olivetti was begging for mercy. 

“Do this row of M’s again,” she’d order. “No TV until you improve your spacing,” she’d add, or “You’re supposed to type 10 rows of W’s, not just eight!” 

Who is this woman? I wondered, and what had she done with my mom? Someone who purportedly knew zilch about typing had become an expert, seemingly overnight. Mom wanted me to succeed, and to make that happen she studied my typing practice book, memorizing the keyboard, the techniques, and the various exercises. She did everything short of typing them herself. 

As she had done when I was learning to play the piano (except this time there was no metronome), my mother prodded me when I became lax in my practicing, encouraged and comforted me when I struggled or wanted to give up. 

When I became fatigued and frustrated, she hauled out her well-worn but still effective typing-can-open-doors dictum, and I would set my gaze like a flint on the practice book, making music on my Olivetti portable. 

Sharing space in an old file folder with my high school and college diplomas is the certificate I received from the Crown Business Institute attesting to my successful completion of the typing course, which had culminated in an aptitude test. When I first showed it to my mother, decades ago, it was only the second time I had ever seen her cry. 

Mom was right. Many doors did open for me once I’d become as confident and fleet-fingered as those students I’d marveled at that first day I reluctantly arrived at Crown. My life would have been markedly different had Mom not insisted on my learning to type at a relatively young age and while she was able to help me. I mastered the typewriter, but the key to my success was the woman who pushed me through one door so future doors could open. That old and faded certificate is just as much hers as it is mine.

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