Thursday, January 20, 2005


While idly cruising around EBAY yesterday, for some reason I tried the keyword “shorthand”. It was quite a surprise just how many items involving shorthand were listed for sale, including a rare copy of Alice in Wonderland, published entirely in Gregg Shorthand. I pondered whether I would remember enough of my shorthand to be able to read the book.

Somewhere in the dusty annals of the University of Texas Interscholastic League, there is recorded a time in 1972 when I was State Champion in the disappearing art of shorthand. Granted I was State Champion in Class B competition, but my score rivaled and even bested the scores of many of the first place contestants from larger school districts, so I make no apologies. It was the first time a student at Smiley High School had placed first in State competition. Of course, thirty years later, I may be the only one who remembers that.

How times have changed. Many nights I sit working on a laptop computer, propped up in bed, connected wirelessly to my main computer downstairs. At the office everyone works on a computer now. There may be one electric typewriter left on site, tucked away in some remote corner. When I took my first typing course in 1970, I learned on a manual Underwood executive typewriter. Many of the kids I work with now have probably never touched a manual typewriter in their lives. Heck, they may not have even used an electric typewriter. I doubt they would be able to comprehend the need to monitor the right edge of the page in order to throw the carriage back to the left to start the next line.

Poor kids. I think they’ve missed something. I enjoyed those old typewriters. I didn’t enjoy the carbon packs and the necessity of correcting an error through multiple copies. But the rhythm you developed learning to type without jamming the keys was quite satisfying. My best speed on a five minute test on that old Underwood was 72 words per minute. Believe me, that’s nothing to sneeze at. We still hire folks who can barely type 50 words per minute on a computer keyboard with no reason to worry about where the words are going to fall on the page and where common typographical errors are automatically corrected as you type. (As long as I’m patting myself on the back, I once clocked 128 words per minute on a computer keyboard. Take that, you young whippersnappers!)

I think I knew then that I would be spending my working years at a desk pushing paper. I planned to get my business degree, work a couple of years as a secretary to get something on my resume and then decide where to head from there. With that plan in mind, I and a few other Senior girls talked the school into offering a shorthand class. There had been little interest in the subject and it had been dropped from the curriculum for several years. But our business teacher/principal, was agreeable and about nine of us signed up. I took to shorthand like a duck to water.

It was fun knowing a language that few others in school could comprehend. We could write notes to each other and blithely inform our teachers that we were taking notes from their lectures and practicing our shorthand at the same time. Who would know otherwise? One of the girls did get caught in her lie once. I think the giggling gave her away. She had been writing some kind of sappy observations about the cute young history teacher. When he challenged her, she airily informed him she was taking notes. He casually lifted her tablet and then stated his intention of checking with the business teacher to see if her story was on the level. She turned about 8 shades of red and nearly died on the spot. He took pity on her and gave the tablet back. I don’t think she tried that again.

It was not my intention to compete in shorthand at the U.I.L. meet, but since I was such an over-achiever I’m sure it was easy to talk me into it. Our teacher had taken another girl to State competition many years before, and he thought I had a good chance of winning. I was more interested in the Ready Writing composition category, but the two competitions did not conflict, so I was game. I had no problem taking first place in the District competition, and also placed in Ready Writing. Next stop was the Regional Meet.

Now I had a problem. I had qualified to compete in both events at Regional. But they were conflicting events, so I had to choose which one to pursue. I decided that Ready Writing was such a subjective competition that I would have a better chance to place in Shorthand. Plus I had a real feeling that my teacher would be crushed if I decided otherwise. So the decision was made and we headed to Blinn College in Brenham.

I expected to place, but I truly was surprised to take first at Regional. Holy cow, I was going to have to compete on the State level. That was not something I had really wanted to do. But now there was no avoiding it.

I was a Senior at a very, very small school in south central Texas. State competition was held on the University of Texas campus in Austin. Light years removed from my natural environment. I knew for a fact that I was in the wrong place when I sat down with the other girls for the dictation portion of the contest. I was competing on the Class B level, but the winners from all classes were taking the same test at the same time. We Class B girls felt like hicks alongside the girls from the larger schools.

The competition was a blur and I was relieved when it was over. I knew I had lost, but that was okay. I just wanted it over. My only regret was that my teacher would be disappointed in my failure.

My parents and I left for awhile to give me a break. We visited a brand new shopping mall in town called Highland Mall (now one of the oldest malls in town). I would have been glad to just head back to Smiley, but we were obligated to go back and find out the test results. I can remember getting back just before the awards were scheduled to be given. My teacher was standing in the hall waiting for us, with a glum expression on his face. Well I wasn’t surprised. But a few minutes later I was floored. My stern, unflappable, distant teacher had grabbed me in a crushing bear hug. It took awhile for it to sink in, I was so stunned at his behavior. I had pulled it off after all. The first State Champion from Smiley High School.

In my closet, high on the wall, hangs a plaque in the shape of a shield. It’s my proof that once upon a time, I was at the top of the heap. I actually got to use my Shorthand skills for a few years. As a Senior in college, I took a refresher course to prepare me for my upcoming job hunt. I even managed to push my speed up a few notches. As I began work as a secretary, I used it daily for about three years, even though some of the secretaries were beginning to rely on the dictaphone. By the time I moved out of secretarial work, the dictaphone was an accepted tool and shorthand was no longer a requirement for a secretarial applicant. Shorthand has since virtually disappeared from use. Only we old-timers still take an odd note here and there in those funny little squiggles that only a select few can read. I still use it occasionally at boring meetings to entertain myself by making disparaging observations about the proceedings. I’m pretty sure that no one else there will know what I’m really thinking.


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