The college type

Yesterday I applied for another job. Yes, I am still on the hunt. I still have the boring task of seeking salaried employment, with slightly less desperation but equal amounts of post-application stress disorder.

For yesterday’s application, one of the items on the person specification was “keyboard skills”. I wanted to adopt a Will Ferrell pose, hand on hip and one eyebrow raised, and say, “Yeah, I tinkle a few ivories, in my own classical, yet syncopated, infantile way.” And then I thought that would be super-lame. (And that’s different from everything else I say, how?)

I then realised that I do have some mean keyboard skills. I have worked on PCs, Macs, laptops, word processors, electronic typewriters, electric typewriters and, way back, I learnt to type on an ancient, massively heavy manual typewriter.

Working on those machines, I developed muscles in my fingers in places where I didn’t know I had places. When we made mistakes, we had to use typewriter erasers and backspace the heavy machinery before retyping the letter. When we typed to the end of a line, we would grab the return lever and push the carriage way to the left to start a new line. We had to take out indemnity insurance in case the machine fell and crushed us to powder. It would.

And all of that took me back to my year at commercial college after I finished my first undergraduate degree. I went, kicking and screaming, into that college year at the insistence of my parents. I honestly felt it was beneath me to do a course that taught me typing and bookkeeping when I had a university degree. How embarrassingly arrogant was I? My parents thought it would be a good and practical idea. I hate to say it, but they were right.

Not only did I have fun there, but I learnt skills that I have used in every job I’ve had. I learnt shorthand, which I still use today when I interview people. I learnt touch-typing, which has been useful regardless what machine I have been typing on. And I met two characters who will stay with me forever. Let’s call them Mr M and Mrs P.

Mr M was our book-keeping lecturer. He arrived at college every day in his smart three-piece suit and hair neatly parted. He had a gap between his front teeth that caused him to whistle every ‘s’ through the lecture room. He would close his eyes, nod his head slightly and say, “Ladiessssss, ladiesssssss, ladiessssss!” (We were only females in the class – it was the 80s and it was Zimbabwe).

He would explain everything to us in precise detail, and we would practise and practise until we got it right. In bookkeeping there is no room for error, so being kind of right was never an option.

We had no Excel spreadsheets or any other programme that would work things out for us. We had no calculators or adding machines. We had to work with ledgers and journals, make credit and debit entries, and make the columns balance. All by ourselves. In our heads. I know the accountants and bean-counters out there will be tapping and trilling the tips of their fingers together in delight, but really – it wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.

Mr M would get exasperated with us “ladiesssss”. And he would be delighted when we got things right. Then he would say, “That is execkle what I am tokking about!”

One of my classmates would get equally exasperated with Mr M. She would battle with the concepts and try and make her columns balance. And then she would yell out, “Yussussss, Mr M! I can’t do this!”

Our office practice lecturer was Mrs P. She wore faded cotton frocks that were tightly belted with full round skirts. She wore her hair in a bun and wore pointy spectacles. Seriously. She had stumbled across a fashion style in the 1950s and heck, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? She stuck with that fashion forever.

Her hair was so tightly squeezed into a bun, I was sure sometimes she had grabbed some scalp along with her hair and tied it right in with the bun. That usually explained the raised eyebrows and ears that moved round the back of her head. And a constant, scary grin.

She would totter around in her sling-back heels, occasionally tottering over, and tell us about what good office practice entailed. She would also regale us with tales of her and her husband’s other life in Spain, but that’s material for another day.

She would always start the day with, “A-kay, ladies! Today we’re going to talk about how to watch paint dry. A-kay? Any questions? Good,” and she would then ramble on and on. None of us really listened. We just watched. I think the tight bun prevented her from forming the letter ‘o’.

I left college that year with a diploma in hand, a bunch of valuable skills and a plate full of humble pie. I hated it when my parents were right.

Sunshine signing off for today.