The kindergartners and first-graders couldn't quite name the object I delivered to their room on Monday, a gift from my mother to the class. It had keys like a laptop, but no screen. It had a plug, and you had to put paper into it before you could see the letters. If you flipped the switch to "on," it hummed.
But I did not hear anyone utter the word "typewriter." Apparently, it was a distant artifact for 5- and 6-year-olds. And this was an IBM Selectric typewriter, the Cadillac Eldorado of typewriters in its day.
Soon, kids were vying for the chance to locate the right letters and type their first word: H-A-N-N-A-H, or B-E-N, or T-Y-L-E-R. Such magic in making your name appear! Then they wrote a thank-you note to Mrs. Nelson.
To those of us who have not grown up with laptops and word processors, a manual writing machine is about more than just typing words. The big, black Royal typewriter I have on my desk at home (to keep me honest about the origin of my typing abilities) is still my symbol of writing.
Its staccato printing sounds, diminutive bell, hefty carriage, bulky metal shoulders, ratcheting paper roller, and keys in rows more like a church organ than my current iBook give it gravitas.
It has several octaves, compared with the sterile clatter of the molded plastic keys of the iBook I'm writing on this minute. And it was designed for immobility.
It is a word engine, more like a factory of printing than this featherweight silicon marvel. It hammers letters directly onto paper winding down below its shiny hood where the levers, rods, connecting pulleys, and metal type lurk. It has a hood like a 1955 Buick and the innards of a slant six power plant.
In my mind, the sounds of those keys striking paper are the cadence of thoughts turning into writing. Every 10 or 15 words, the little bell sends its carriage zipping back to the start line, ready to drag a new line of words across the page.
My Royal might be compared to a musical score: It has sharps and flats, bass and treble, a murmuring space bar, the timpani of the capital-letter shift, the triangle of the pinky finger making a question mark. It has 16th notes of familiar patterns and convenient phrasing: "the," "is," "without" – words that alternate hands, allowing greater speed or swinging rhythm to accompany a jaunty "qwerty" thought.
Boom, clatter-clatter-clatter, ta-ta-ta-ta-boom. Ting. This is writing, and when I learned to type in seventh grade, my stories written on the Royal typewriter had more authority because they looked like real writing. So I bid farewell to handwriting.
A few weeks back, when we cleaned out the attic of the elementary school where I am principal, we uncovered a very early Macintosh laptop, as well as an old school desk. Both reside in the lobby now, great curiosities to all the kids.
The desk lid raises almost like an oversize wooden laptop, come to think of it, or the hood of a car. And it even has a hole for an inkwell. The names of former Adams School students are carved into it – graffiti turned artifact. A few graduates still living in town came by and identified the scandalous love notes of their cohorts still etched in the wood.
The desk, although much older than the laptop – or the Selectric that has joined the K-1 classroom – seems oddly more familiar, an almost comforting artifact. It seems to embody the true starting point of writing that we can all remember – when we held a pencil in our hand and traced the letters for our name: T-O-D-D or S-A-L-L-Y. The letters spelling the name our parents gave us to be called. How magical it felt to write your name.
And it still does, even with a typewriter. Thank you, Mrs. Nelson.