I’m pleased to announce that I’ve now reached the age that comes with exclusive membership in a club only for parents. Membership in this club includes, but is not limited to, having teens or tweens in your household, immunity to eye rolls, constant use of the word “whatever” (by everyone), and almost daily story telling that begins with the phrase, “Well, when I was your age…” If you’re unsure if you’ve reached full membership status in this club, then your kids haven’t been complaining enough.
Just last week at dinner, we were talking about all the end of the year projects and papers coming due. Our kids use Google docs and submit most of their “written work” online. From home. In their PJ’s. There’s autosave and spell check and cut and paste, and formatting with the stroke of a few keys.
And almost as if by reflex, my mouth opened and these words just tumbled out… “Well, when I was your age…”
“Seriously,” I told them in between the snorts and smirks. “You have no idea.”
So I’m going to tell you.
If you grew up in the 1980’s (or earlier) and your teacher assigned a 10 page typed research paper, chances are you can immediately recall that stomach-dropping feeling of dread that came with an assignment like that.
For starters, this meant that you’d be at the public library for countless hours during the upcoming weekends. (I once missed a family weekend trip during my senior year because my English teacher assigned such a paper and there was only one weekend before the due date.) Research in the pre-internet age involved laying eyes and hands on actual physical pages of text, that many times was not allowed to leave the library. Anyone remember saving dimes for the copy machine at the library? Anyone remember wasting precious dimes because you couldn’t figure out the correct page layout on the copier glass? Or you didn’t check the settings on the copier from the previous user- who enlarged or darkened something?
This also meant that you’d have to type your words on an actual typewriter. Which, if you didn’t have an electric typewriter, was not an easy task. Those of you old enough know the amount of force it takes, on a manual typewriter, to hit the “a” key with your pinky finger. Throughout 10 pages. And the letter “a” is the third most used letter in the alphabet (tied with I, N, O, and S). Most of us just hunted and pecked. Not very efficient.
Thankfully, by the time I was in high school we owned an electric typewriter, with a built-in correction tape. That correction tape was both a source of great relief and impending anxiety. It was like driving a car with a broken gas gauge. Which I’ve done.
That correction ribbon was like gold, baby, Solid Gold. It neatly saved my ass from those stupid spelling mistakes that teachers would mark up with a red pen and take off indiscriminate points for. Stupid spelling mistakes that I had to look up in a dictionary, turning pages and scanning columns. Who uses (or even owns) an actual dictionary anymore? Remember those worksheets where you had to put the words in alphabetical order, or put them with the correct “guide words”? Who knows what a “guide word” is anymore? Alas, I digress…
So even though I knew how to type (keyboarding with Ms. Handy at good ol’ PHS), I had to type slowly and wisely. I kid you not when I say the fear of God was in me for making too many errors as I went along… if I used up my white correction ribbon, I would be up the creek. You never knew when the damn thing was going to correct its last word or letter. And your mom (well, my mom, at least) sure as hell wasn’t running out to Staples or Office Max or Caldor to get your (my) sorry poor-planning ass another correction tape.
If you happened to be unfortunate enough to make a big mistake, like type in the wrong sentence or skip a paragraph or something equally dreadful and obvious, you suddenly had to assess if it was worth it to use those precious millimeters of correction tape or to just type the whole damn page over. Usually you just typed the whole damn page over.
If you happened to be really unfortunate and run out of correction tape, you might be forced to use white out. If you were lucky enough to have a bottle on hand that wasn’t gloppy or dried out. Some of my high school teachers had a slight aversion to white out. And by slight aversion, I mean, they said, “Don’t even think about turning in a paper with white out on it.” There was a lot of cursing involved and a lot of do-overs. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a 10 page paper sometimes went through 30 pieces of paper before producing a final copy.
If your teacher was nice enough to let you use white out, in moderation, you’d have to precisely turn the knob of the typewriter to move your mistake up so the white out brush could paint over it without getting it on the typewriter. You’d have to gingerly paint it on so it wasn’t gloppy, wait for it to dry, and then turn the knob again, hopefully lining it up in the exact same spot so you wouldn’t have floating letters in the middle of your word.
God help you if you were in a hurry and the white out wasn’t dry. Then you’d have a hot mess. And you’d most likely have to type the whole page over again anyway.
Typing bibliographies was a special kind of ordeal. First of all, you had to make sure you had the right format for books, or magazines, or newspapers, or encyclopedias… Remember encyclopedias? Everyone fighting over the “M” volume in the school library? I always thought my life as a student would have been easier if we’d just owned a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas… Alas, I digress again…
Bibliographies were like lines of computer code- the carefully correctly spelled titles with capitalization and abbreviations in the correct order, with the exact number of spaces between words, characters, commas, semi-colons, etc. required for perfect format. I’ll never figure out how some teachers always managed to look close enough to notice the double-space missing after the period or colon (which apparently isn’t even a thing anymore, and now my whole world is messed up).
Don’t get me started on the teachers who got all fancy and wanted us to use footnotes, for crying out loud. What the hell were they trying to do to us? There is no “footnote” key on a typewriter, no tiny numbers for footnotes. You had to stop and roll the drum up a half a line space to type the regular size number for your damn footnote. And then roll the drum back down, and hope you lined it up correctly to continue your sentences. (Didn’t I just complain about something like this?) If your teacher was especially sadistic, they’d make you cite the footnotes at the bottom of the same f-&*ing page instead of making a separate footnote page at the end of the paper. Talk about a logistics planning nightmare.
When you were finished typing your 10 page paper, there was physical evidence strewn around the room of just how many times you screwed up before the final product. Crumpled and ripped papers, spilled white-out smudged on the table (which your mother was going to hit the roof over), bits of correction tape… Maybe even scissors, tape and glue: evidence of your desperate attempt to retype just the one sentence you messed up, cut and glue it over the page, hoping it would look normal, but NO, it doesn’t, and you have to retype the page anyway.
You all have no idea how many times I screwed up typing this one blog, or how many edits it went through. Because I don’t have to tell you, and you have no way of finding out. Yay for progress, technology, and keyboarding skills! The last of which is about the only useful thing left from that era which I’ve just described.