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There’s More to Education Than Appears

Susan Campbell

I think I am the last living person to use Gregg’s shorthand.

I learned it in Mrs. Coburn’s high school business class. Gregg’s is a phonetic means of writing quickly, created by an Irish immigrant who had already learned a different form of shorthand at age 10 as he sat in church taking notes during homilies. He created his own form in the 1880s.

In my era ” Paleolithic ” girls took business courses, and boys took shop. Those of us in skirts marched into Mrs. Coburn’s class to learn how to conduct ourselves in our mythical future workplace, the office.

There we would wear sensible heels and sharp suits like Doris Day, who had a secretarial career, or, in more modern parlance, that of an administrative assistant ” but only until some really handsome man came and rescued us from all that.

In reality, most of us were heading for Elder’s shirt factory or Tamko roofing, where our knowledge of shorthand would be superfluous, at best.

Perhaps it was that understanding ” that our lives would require neither sensible shoes nor shorthand ” that moved us to adapt a world-weariness we hadn’t yet earned.

We occasionally challenged the gender line, but our reluctance to learn ” both boys and girls ” didn’t stop with shorthand.

In class after class, we would bring the lecture to a grinding halt by voicing the chant of our generation: “Is this going to be on the test?” The unspoken part of that statement was: “because if it isn’t on the test, let’s not bother.”

And then we would resume our doodling and wool-gathering, swine before whom pearls were wasted. (We once left a student teacher in tears over this insufferably bad-mannered exercise. Shame on us.)

Approached properly, shorthand might have given us the idea that we were meant for something other than the local factories, but it mostly just served to annoy us. High school was a way station. The train stopped at a world of tin lunchboxes and time clocks. Punch in. Punch out. Our parents lived paycheck to paycheck, and the thought that education might afford us a different life seemed like a cruel tease.

Mrs. Coburn was a sweet, squat teacher who had the grace to allow us to feign faux worldliness while sitting behind the Selectrics. When we practiced typing, Mrs. Coburn called out a letter, and we, rote-like, typed it on the page in front of us.

It sounded like we were marching in place, and because this was post-Age of Aquarius, any act performed in synchronicity struck me as funny. But when I tried to explain my giggles to the exasperated teacher, it made no sense. I think she thought I was high.

I wasn’t, I swear. I needed my wits about me to continually seek relevance in my education ” at least, that’s how I described it to myself. Our brains had just so many drawers, or so we imagined, and if any teacher tried to preach to us the importance of learning for learning’s sake, I don’t remember it. The Vietnam War was ending, and the disco age wouldn’t make it over the Ozark Hills for a while.

On some level, we knew our GTOs and our Farrah haircuts would soon be the objects of ridicule, so we were eager to get the diploma (or not) and get on with adulthood.

I deeply regret that attitude now, and I wonder what I missed, plunging headlong as I did into pragmatism. I went to college and then straight into journalism, a career I had always intended. But here’s the irony: I use Gregg’s to take notes to this day.

For more than a quarter-century, I’ve filled pages of notebooks with the squiggle-record of other people’s words. Invariably, whomever I’m talking with stops and asks what I’m writing. I show them; maybe I’ll write their name in Gregg’s. It’s a wonderful ice-breaker.

Meanwhile, all these years later, I am left with what I really learned in Mrs. Coburn’s class: Nothing is wasted. Nothing. And it’s all been on the test.

I wish someone could have convinced me of that back then.

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

Vail Colorado


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