Repeat After Me

Sex, typing, and the simple advice that could save your life

When most teenagers are itching to take driver’s ed and get behind the wheel, I couldn’t wait to learn how to type. I signed up as soon as I could, in ninth grade, even though I’d heard that some of my brainier peers wouldn’t take the class, fearing that a low grade in typing would ruin their GPAs. I didn’t care about that. I thought of typing as a life skill at least as crucial as driving, and far less dangerous.

Our typing teacher was Mr. Henry, a kind man who guided us through simple exercises to learn the home-row keys, observed our fingering, and made gentle corrections. We sat in stiff rows, a room full of clicks and clacks and carriage-return dings! Mr. Henry dictated letters regarding our progress, which we dutifully took home. My parents stuck them to the fridge—proof that I was learning something at Chaska High School.

Across the aisle from me sat Marie. She was a senior and had huge, cantaloupe-like breasts and a great-looking boyfriend. They had been dating for more than a year and everyone assumed they were having sex. I was a scrawny, flat-chested freshman, with a crush on the entire basketball team and George Michael (the singer, not the Arrested Development character, who hadn’t yet been born). Marie was beautiful and our fastest typist. She could pound out 85 words a minute, and in my mind an odd connection had formed: if I could type as fast as Marie, a hot boyfriend and sex would come to me, too. Life would come to me.

So, on a day that Mr. Henry had announced a timed test, I sat poised like an Olympic sprinter, my eyes on the text we were about to copy, my fingers hovering over the keyboard. When he said go, I took off, my fingers a tangle of anxious tapping. I must have looked crazed and/or crazy, because I hadn’t been typing for long when suddenly Mr. Henry was in front of me. He gently grabbed my wrists, held them firmly, and quietly said, “Calm down, child.” Then he smiled and continued around the room.

I’d forgotten about this moment until last fall, when I was asked to return to my high school and talk about what I’d learned there. It occurred to me that typing was one of the most useful things I’d ever learned anywhere. And that “Calm down, child” might have been the best advice anyone has ever given me.

Through my teens, 20s, and 30s, I was in such a hurry to get to the places I was not: longing for the husband, the house, the kids—the things I didn’t yet have. I wish I had recalled “Calm down, child” when I was feeling sorry for myself in my 30s, still a graduate student in a small apartment while my friends were climbing the corporate ladder, flipping real estate, and jetting off on family vacations. “Calm down, child” might have been a useful mantra when my second book came back from my editor with the request that I throw away the first version and start all over.

I don’t think Mr. Henry was a Buddhist, but his whispered admonition reverberates with the Zen idea that we are always beginners.

I thought of this a few months ago when I took my 77-year-old mother to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I watched her tiny frame—bent over a walker, bad feet and back making it hard to get around—moving glacially through the galleries. We were there to see the Terracotta Warriors, the “eighth wonder of the world,” fragile, patient survivors of the centuries.

Calm down, I whispered to myself. Watching my shrinking mother fiddle in frustration with the buttons on the audio guide, I wished I could turn back the clock and take in every moment with appreciation, happy just to be someone’s child.