Rich Wilhelm

Row. And. Stop.

In 1979, high school, memoir, school, Writing on March 25, 2016 at 9:33 am


Ninth grade was one of my weirder years. But isn’t ninth grade one of everybody’s weirder years?

For me, the weirdness was enhanced by the sense of dislocation I was feeling the day I started ninth grade. Just a few months earlier, I graduated St. Joseph School, after eight years of Catholic education. Within weeks of this auspicious event, my family left the house in which I had grown up. My parents had bought a new house in the next town over but, seeing as it wasn’t quite built yet, we moved in with, first, my grandmother, then my aunt and uncle. This is where we were living when I started ninth grade at a public junior high school, at which I knew nobody.

I can still detect the ever-so-slight remnant of the knot I felt in the pit of my stomach the morning I walked into Chichester Junior High on the opening day of school. It hurts, a tiny bit, even now.

Also, did I mention that it was 1979? Therefore, this is me in Grade 9:


Life for me as a ninth grader was rough at first. As you can imagine from the photo, it wasn’t long before the class bullies introduced themselves in no uncertain terms. I was fortunate that these introductions never became physical, but it was still disconcerting to be told that my face was soon to be broken.

Gradually, I found myself. My family moved into our new house. I made some friends, who were just as weird as I was. I confused some of the kids in my art class by bringing in records by Chuck Mangione (“where’s the singing?”) and Flying Lizards (“what the fuck is this?”). I joined the school musical, Cheaper by the Musical, in which I: a) played a football player; b) sang; and c) danced. I did not do any of those three things well, but I had fun.

Amid all the craziness of my ninth grade year, I remember one island of total zen calm and stability, though I’m not sure I saw it that way at the time.

Typing class.

fff ddd sss aaa jjj kkk lll ;;; fff ddd sss aaa jjj kkk lll ;;;

“Row. And. Stop.”

Those words were intoned by our typing teacher, Mrs. Peters. I do not remember Mrs. Peters’ first name. I am not entirely certain I knew Mrs. Peters’ first name as I sat banging away at manual typewriter keys in her classroom. But Mrs. Peters was there to do a job — teaching a motley crew of ninth graders to type. She did it well, calmly instructing us to “row. and. stop.” after each line we typed.

Mrs. Peters’ voice and the clacking of keys were the only sounds ever heard in typing class. No Flying Lizards allowed.

Mrs. Peters was unflappable, so much so that I remember being somewhat startled when she enthusiastically engaged in an animated conversation about golf with one of my classmates. It just seemed so out-of-left-field that Mrs. Peters should be thinking about anything other than rowing. and. stopping. This, of course, had way more to do with my somewhat limited view of the world at that time than it did with Mrs. Peters’ interests outside the typing classroom.

And a note about that classroom: it was on the other side of the rather large school from my core classes. This was probably intimidating to me at first, but that’s another reason why I remember typing class as being an oasis of sorts. It was simply so far away from everything else.

I think I spent the entire year with Mrs. Peters and her typing class, but I might be wrong. It may have just seemed like the entire year. I’m not sure what my typing grades were, but I’m thinking they were just average. In either case I know this: once I stepped out of typing class for the last time, I never saw Mrs. Peters again.

I have typed nearly every day  of my life since the last time I saw Mrs. Peters. Both my typing speed and accuracy are top-notch, though even today, if I start thinking about how fast I’m typing, I immediately start making misteakss. Mistakes, that is.

So much of my life’s work, both as a professional writer/editor and as someone who frequently writes personal work as an avocation, is about my hands translating via a keyboard what is going through my brain at that moment. It is true that I’ve always kept a handwritten journal, and have even successfully revived that practice this year. However, much of what I write these days, including this essay, moves straight from brain to keyboard. Through my hands, without the intervention of a pen or paper. Using the techniques Mrs. Peters taught me 37 years ago in the faraway deserted island typing classroom filled with big old manual typewriters at Chichester Junior High School.

When I think back on all the stuff I learned in high school, it’s a wonder to think that ninth grade typing class may have been my most important takeaway of all. But, with all due respect to the many great teachers I had, typing class clearly had the most profoundly practical effect on my life from 1979 straight on up to this morning.

I have the mysterious, golf-loving Mrs. Peters to thank for that.

Row. And. Stop.







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Patrick F. O'Donnell

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