Sometime during my junior year, The Ellis School got a computer, just one. It was, after all, a small school. The computer was large, almost as big as one of the doors in the main entrance.
I have no idea what it did, besides make signs that said, “Swamp Sewickley.” Computers were for math. I was no good at math, and I hated it. So I had nothing to do with the thing. I figured computers would not be a large part of my life.
Boy, was I wrong.
Of course, if I had learned to use the computer we had at Ellis, I might be able to find a job in a museum now. That is about the only place you’d find a computer like that, these days. Ellis girls carry more sophisticated technology in their coat pockets.
What I did learn at Ellis was how to string words together. I learned this from a couple of English teachers who liked to take good stories apart, to show us how they worked. At the time I found it annoying. I just wanted to enjoy the story. Now I’m glad they did because I learned how really good writers made their point.
No surprise, then, that I majored in journalism in college. There, I learned all manner of useful skills. How to edit with a pencil. How to count headlines. How to do paste up and layout, with X-ACTO knives and rubber cement.
No one really believed that the six video display terminals that were kept in the basement of Lasher Hall would make those skills obsolete, because the video display terminals didn’t work that well. If you pressed delete, your whole story went to never-never land. It didn’t occur to anybody that better machines would come along.
I did learn more about writing. In those days, however, prose took a back seat to layout and pictures. Print, it was decided, was just a little passe. I understand why. If you’d told me then that there would be a World Wide Web, where anyone and everyone with a keyboard shared their views with the world, I would have presumed you were more than a little nuts.
I learned to type on a manual typewriter, setting tabs and margins, making sure not to twirl the paper out when I was done. Every now and then I carefully cleaned the gunk out of the keys with a straight pin. I debated whether to use erasable paper or Wite-Out. All of that is irrelevant now, except for the keyboard. I still need to know that “w” is over “s,” and the comma is under “k.” So some of what I learned remains useful.
But it’s hard to tell what you’re going to need to know 15 years from now.
I still have my mother’s old manual typewriter. She majored in English at Chatham University, back when it was still the Pennsylvania College For Women. People used to ask her what she did with a degree in English. She always said it gave her something to think about when she was doing the ironing.
Mom was being modest. For one thing she didn’t do that much ironing. For another, before she married she opened the first gift shop at Allegheny General Hospital. She wrote advertising copy. She was alumni secretary, at what had become Chatham College.
After she married, she raised two girls to be extremely well-educated women. She was an organic gardener before that was popular. When she noticed that Ellis had only one librarian to handle a large and impressive library, she organized the other mothers to volunteer to help out.
She became a very good potter. I still have the plates, bowls and flower pots she made.
The night before her 65th birthday, she volunteered to become a tour guide for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. When she discovered that the tours weren’t all that interesting, she became something of an expert on local history and the city neighborhoods, and made the tours something people enjoyed
What she learned, at some point in her life, was to keep on learning. To stay curious. To enjoy discovering new things. I don’t know if that came as part and parcel with her extensive knowledge of Shakespeare, or if her extensive knowledge of the Bard came because of her love of learning. I know that the most successful people keep learning all their lives.
I get annoyed at television programs that portray learners as strange-looking people with limited social skills and few friends, while the ignorant are hip, happy and popular.
Ignorance is not helpful. Learning is.
The world is uncertain. The world has always been uncertain. When my grandmother rode down Cincinnati’s Glen Parker Avenue in great-grandmother’s buggy, I don’t suppose she ever thought she’d be an old lady, let alone an old lady who drove a Dodge. Yet she drove that Dodge very well.
The essential thing to learn is how to learn, and see the changes coming, and embrace them even if they are a little frightening. But I’m not at all sure how one would teach that.
Jean Martin is a writer living in Swissvale (LadyJeandeBurg@aol.com).