I have a long list of students who think I am a pretty good teacher. However, the list of teachers who thought I was a good student would be much, much shorter. Throughout my entire school career, I was a victim of an insatiable drive to move, which got me into some trouble with my teachers.
So, when I was recently asked by a student what high school class has had the most impact on my current life, I was very surprised when my mind immediately went to one of the classes I loathed in high school.
The dreaded Typing I. Taught, of course, by the dreaded Mrs. O’Brien.
I’ve spoken about Mrs. O’Brien before. She was a tiny, bespectacled woman who we never saw without a cardigan, even on hot days in June. When she stood behind her chair, you could hardly see her.
And yet, when I think of the classes I took in high school, there was no class—and no teacher—that has had more impact on my career and adult life.
Never Before Had a Teacher Made Me Sit Still and Do It So Well
Never before had a teacher successfully put the pressure on me to sit still and do something—especially something so repetitive. In band, I failed miserably. Drills in sports left me bored to death. And yet Mrs. O’Brien somehow managed to get me to sit, with good posture, and type all about that quick brown fox.
I was a jokester who would crack up the kids around me. She stood at the end of my row. If I opened my mouth to talk, she was there with that look, scaring me back to the keyboard.
And she did something that suddenly lit a fire in me to make that brown fox quicker. She turned the boredom of typing into a competition. She kept challenging me to be quicker. To look at my fingers less, to make fewer mistakes.
She taught me how to focus all of that energy that made me want to bounce around the room into just my fingertips. One day, I hit 25 words per minute (wpm). Mrs. O’Brien looked at my work and nodded.
She gave me an appraising look. “You can go faster. I know you can.”
She challenged me. She pushed me. She made the drudgery of typing as fun as Pong—because I could win.
And every week my numbers went up. Faster. Fewer mistakes. A meaningful nod. A challenge to get to 50 wpm. No mistakes. She was sure I could do it.
At one point, I faltered. When it seemed that I wouldn’t be able to break 45 wpm, I started to goof off. And the kids around me started to laugh.
She stared at me. She was evaluating me. I know now she was trying to figure out how to reach me. To understand what made me click, and what she could do to convince me to push myself harder.
Then, one day, just before drills, she tapped out the kid next to me and sat down.
The timer went off and she began to type like the wind. I’d never seen anything like it. I had friends who were pianists and it was just like that—watching her hands fly like she was typing Chopin. The fast Chopin. The pieces where the piano wires start to smoke.
The timer went off. I’d typed 45 wpm. “Go faster,” she said.
Again, the timer went off. Her fingers flew. I typed to catch up. I made a mistake, I slowed down. “Faster,” she said as the timer started again. And again.
50. 60. 70.
And she did this amazing thing. She combined the competitive spirit that has always lived inside me with modeling. She showed me how to beat that part of me that wanted to go look at a squirrel into a competitive typist.
On the last timed test, I typed 90 wpm.
I’d never type that fast again, but Mrs O’Brien showed me I could do it.
With her big glasses and her cardigan and her practical haircut.
Mrs. O’Brien Knew She Could Change My Life
For years after, I wondered why she tried so hard to get me to work. I’d always been a class clown, but she did not allow me to go down that path in her room.
Now that I’m a teacher, I understand completely. She knew that every wpm I grew would buy me precious time in my life. It meant I would type my papers quicker. It meant I would spend less time with the white-out and the correctable ribbon. As I moved into journalism, I became the guy who could type out a story as fast as the wind. I would go to college on a journalism scholarship and become the youngest editor ever for my college paper.
Later, I took a job writing play reviews for a proper newspaper. On Friday nights I would go see a play, return to the newspaper and write a review. That sounds easy, but the entire print crew of the newspaper would be staring through the giant print room window at me while I typed. They couldn’t go home until I was finished.
Of course, this was back in the day of typewriters and typesetting machines. I would type a paragraph, and the typesetter would yank it out of my typewriter and run it to the typesetting machine. It would be typeset, developed, waxed and put onto the proofs. We did that paragraph by paragraph until I had reached the 14 or 16 or 20 inches of space I was allotted for the week.
Mrs. O’Brien had a window into my future. She made sure I had skills that gave me incredible options for my life and career.
Even after leaving journalism behind and going into teaching, those high school skills have continued to create avenues for me that would never have existed if I couldn’t type like the wind.
These days, thanks to the Education Civil Rights Alliance, I am a Leading Educator Ambassador for Equity, or LEAE. This is a group of the legal teams of some of the nation’s most important civil rights organizations. The NAACP, GLSEN, Lambda Legal, The Human Rights Campaign, Southern Poverty Law Center are all founding members. As an LEAE, my job is to step forward and write letters in protest of actions taken by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration that roll back students’ civil rights protections.
I can do that because I have no fear of stepping forward to the keyboard. I can help the fight for equity in a tangible way because I can type like the wind.
This Teacher Appreciation Day, Let’s Not Overlook Vocational Teachers
So often teachers who teach vocational skills are overlooked when it comes to awards and recognition. It is a shame, because it’s often those teachers who make an incredible impact in the lives of their students.
Who would think that so much of my future would have been the result of the dedication of one quiet, cardigan-wearing typing teacher, who would do what she had to do to reach a difficult student.
She challenged me to a type-off and she slaughtered me. She earned my respect. And she almost doubled my best time.
She lit a fire in me to be the best I could be. Her lesson would endure throughout my adult life, and I still appreciate her to this day.
Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, Mrs. O'Brien. I'll never be able to truly convey how much I appreciate what you did for me. Nor how much I appreciate the work of all the teachers out there challenging and inspiring their students to reach goals they never thought possible.