By Gretchen Wehmhoff

At the beginning of my fourth year teaching, I was transferred to Chugiak High School in Southcentral Alaska as an English and newspaper teacher.  

Chugiak had recently completed major renovations, and with that, they budgeted computer labs in the building. My classroom was next door to a lab of 32 brand new Macintosh SE computers. The principal wanted me to use them to publish the paper.

That began a crash course in PageMaker, (now InDesign) and the challenge of helping students visualize what their paper would look like through an 8-inch screen.  

The teacher before me had put out one issue a quarter. The kids turned in their stories, she typed them in column strips and created camera ready pages. 

I wasn’t new to that. I’d done a stint at the Anchorage Daily News in paste-up and production. You can guess my age when I use terms like rubylith and waxers. We had a small overnight team with two typesetters, two past-up artists (me) and a photo equipment operator who made the photos into thousands of dots (PMTs) so they would print well on a press.

I pushed the newspaper students to put out a paper each month. There was some push back and some excitement. We struggled through the first issue. We suffered through our mistakes. The principal was happy, but I wanted more — we hadn’t learned to use new fonts. The first issue was published in New York font. I later learned to stay away from fonts named after cities. They were meant for dot matrix printers, not typesetting or desktop publishing. We also needed to ramp up our production. 

It was in this class that I also said my first “damn” to a group of kids.

We were reviewing our first issue. I figured the best way to get kids to see the reality of checking spelling, captions and headlines was to have them mark up their own paper. The horror of knowing they made a mistake for the entire school to see got them into proofreading more carefully. It also brought them to another reality. Expectations.

After we looked over the paper with highlighters, we talked about using tools like spellcheck. A senior girl raised her hand.

“I don’t think it is fair that we have to type our stories. Some of us don’t like to type,” she said

Remember, this was the era where kids still turned in handwritten papers. Very few had access to personal computers outside of school, if at all.

I was a bit taken aback.  “We all have to type our own stories,” I replied.

“Last year Ms. So and So typed them for us,” she said, drawing a virtual line in the sand with her voice.

My brain didn’t handle that well. There was no way in heck I was going to type everyone’s stories. But my answer didn’t come out that nicely.

“There is no way I’m going to type your stories when there are 32 damn computers next door,” I said. Then to top it off, “And you have no idea how fortunate you are to have computers with spell check to do that. Don’t talk to me about typing your stories.”

I think there was a parent complaint after that, but the principal backed me up. He really wanted to see the new technology utilized. 

My mother had insisted that all of her kids take typing classes. Two of us did.

“You’ll need it when you go to college,” she said.

I started in the eighth grade with manual typewriters.  It was a unique class and I loved the sound of 30 kids typing a rhythmic JJJJ  FFFF KKKK DDDD LLLL SSSS and the unified sound as we all returned our carriages together. 

In tenth grade I took a refresher semester on the new IBM Selectrics. The keys were easier to press and there were no hammers to get caught up when you lost your rhythm. These machines had little balls spinning around placing type. We also had the choice of PICA or ELITE which now translates to 10 and 12 point font size. In addition, the metal carriage return handle was replaced with a button on the left side, RETURN.

But typewriters had challenges. Mistakes. There was no spelling software to magically correct an error. The entire concept of FIND and REPLACE didn’t exist.

Mistakes were handled with whiteout tape. If you weren’t lucky enough to catch the mistake while the paper was still in the roller, there was the challenge of repositioning the sheet strategically to line up with where you anticipated the type would appear.  I was rarely able to position the paper correctly.  

I later discovered onion skin or erasable paper. Being able to erase the ink while the paper was still in the carriage was magical.

My most frustrating typing experience was in my freshman year of college when I misspelled the name of an author throughout the entire biography and turned it in. Oh to have had FIND and REPLACE back then.

So, the kids persevered with typing their stories. They also learned to save. Every now and then I’d hear a scream or a cry. “Who touched the power cord?  And they had to start over.

I put signs all over the room.  “Save” 

The students caught on, but every now and again one would be so engaged in the writing that hitting SAVE didn’t happen in time. But we learned. Now Google and Word save for us. It has been 30 years since I taught that first newspaper class.  

Typos slip by and errors occur. Now we battle auto correct, but typing is the norm now. Keyboarding and computer classes have replaced the typewriter, but I still type with old typing norms. Melinda is constantly removing the second space after the period from my typewriter training.

When the first paper you publish as newspaper owners has a typo on the front page, it is humbling.  And like my students, it pushes us to edit and proofread more carefully.  

A mistake makes Melinda and I groan. Once it’s on the newsprint there is no erasing or correction tape.  We have to own it. 

It seems technology has saved us time, but it doesn’t protect us from human error.