False First Impressions

I am older than the internet, which means I am older than dirt. It also means I had to learn typing (keyboarding to you millenials) on an honest-to-goodness IBM Selectric typewriter. I learned it in the business wing of our high school from Mr. R.

IBM_SelectricCollege-track students in those days didn’t often take business classes, but Mr. R. taught both history and typing at our high school, and I had him for several classes in my teens. Mostly, I did not respect him. I think, in retrospect, that this was a function of my disregard for history, which in my limited experience seemed to consist entirely of the memorization of unrelated facts. My brain focuses on relationships, not facts, and while I was able to find the relationships between topics necessary to earn my A, the whole process seemed tedious and somewhat pointless[1].

Although I have since learned that Mr. R. was a bright man, a hard-working man, and a good man, I in my ignorant youth confounded the dull, plodding, pedantic subject he taught with the teacher himself.  Moreover, Mr. R’s physique did nothing to dissuade me of this incorrect opinion. Mr. R. was obese.

I do not hide from the fact that I am generally considered overweight, and have been so for as long as I can remember. During this same time, I have had any number of friends whose BMI exceeded my own, and really thought nothing of it. In this regard, Mr. R was exceptional.

Standing a full head and shoulders taller than me, Mr. R. still carried so much additional weight around his middle that it was his girth, not his height, which caught your immediate attention. His waist was the widest part of his body, and I remember wondering how his belt could possibly suspend his pants above a pair of hips that were so much smaller in size. His broad neck supported no less than three chins, and his rolling gait suggested a sailor just beginning his first shore leave after a full year at sea. And those hands!

People in my family generally have narrow wrists and thin fingers. This feature has served my daughters well when learning to play the violin. Since the reality we know tends to define “normal”, for me, skinny hands are normal hands to me. Mr. R. did not have skinny hands. Indeed, his fingers were best compared with sausages, and I wondered how he could even bend them, much less use them to do actual work.

My bogus opinion was corrected one day in typing class when my ribbon broke. Unable to finish my exercise, I asked for help, and Mr. R. came to see me.

“Out of your seat,” he said, and I rose. Mr. R. slid into the chair. I craned myself over the typewriter from the side, watching as he extracted the broken ribbon cartridge and replaced it with a fresh one. Then he rolled a fresh piece of paper onto the platen and set his hands on the typewriter keys. Even with his thumbs held close together, Mr. R’s hands were so broad that they spanned the entire machine. Then his fingers blurred.

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs” appeared on the page, and I never saw it happen.

I later learned that Mr. R easily typed over a hundred words a minute, accurately, with a typewriter. These days, my best typing speed peaks out at around a hundred words a minute — on a computer.  The keyboard on a small laptop may be insufferable, but the keys on my 17″ Dell are far easier to use than anything I had access to in the 80’s.

From this brief incident, I learned in a practical way just how deceived we can become when our opinions are based on appearances alone. More recently, it has me thinking about how I can use mistakes made with first impressions to product conflicts in my stories.

[1] For those who would take this as a recommendation to do poorly in history, let me remind you that those who fail to learn in history class are doomed to repeat it.  Learn the material, earn a good grade, and you will only have to take it once.  Moreover, you will have earned the right to mock the whole process in your blog thirty years later.

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