The Ballad of an Eighth Grade Gladiator


Clack-clack-clack-clack. The chorus of clacking rang out in the small computer lab as tiny fingers pressed down on the brand new keys of Macintosh keyboards. Like a forest of chatty insects, the clacking filled the room of elementary school children. We were new to this—this “typing” thing—and the foreign and measured coordination required to make our fingers both sit-on and reach-to the proper keys commanded a level of concentration our young minds rarely had to employ. “From the F key, you will reach to the T key,” the teacher told us. “Then, from the J key, you will reach the H key.” We stared at our fingers, training our brains as to where each key sat and wondering why this was a skillset worth mastering. After twenty minutes of concentrated effort finding and pressing each letter, we lifted our hands and tapped the “period” key. It was the first complete sentence we’d ever typed on a computer.

Spacebar-spacebar. New sentence.*

The truth is, most of us had to be taught how to use this technology from the most rudimentary levels: This is how the mouse works; This is where you set your hands on the keyboard; This is how you take care of a floppy disk by sliding it into its sleeve that’s seemingly made of onion skin. It was all entirely new to us. We didn’t know it, but we were doing something no generation before us had done—we were using computers in the classroom. Though the internet wouldn’t become a part of the conversation until I was in junior high, what booted onto our screens from DOS prompts and floppy disks unlocked worlds of magic we’d never imagined before. I was then, as I am now, convinced there was a fair amount of sorcery involved with disks that could be both thin and bendy but could also contain the entire Oregon Trail.

That’s what we actually wanted to spend the afternoon doing—playing Oregon Trail. Not that I ever had much luck with the game because my digital family routinely died of dysentery or drowned as we forded the river. When I first played the Trail, I named the family members after my own. It felt like a virtual family vacation for a while but once those virtual Brinsons started dying—again, because I wasn’t good at keeping them or myself or my livestock alive—it bummed me out so hard I had to switch to using random names instead. Even in a virtual landscape, the harsh life of a settler was clearly not for me. But beyond my staggeringly irrational name-association-based paranoia, I found I was also an astoundingly horrible shot when it came time to hunt for food. Perhaps it was because I saw the squirrels, bunnies, and deer as my woodland friends whose purpose was to sing Disney hits, but I was a terrible digital hunter. For some reason, I could shoot every mallard in Duck Hunt and do so with ease, but hunting on the Trail? Nope. Still, sometimes I got lucky.

Spacebar-spacebar. You killed a bison.

Hitting a bison gave me a palpable feeling of accomplishment. I’d excitedly share the news with my classmates sitting at the computers to my right and left but they never cared. They’d shot three already. Nevertheless, I felt good about my one good shot. But even as I reveled in the death of an 8-bit bison—food enough to sustain my imaginary family for days on end—the game would then tell me I was only able to carry 100 pounds worth of meat back to the wagon. What’s the point of having all these children if they can’t be put to work carrying some of the animal carcass so they won’t starve to death? It was profoundly irritating. Though I had issues with the game’s logistics and I wasn’t great at surviving (mostly because my digital children were utterly useless), I still wanted to play Oregon Trail.

Too bad most of our time in the computer lab was spent learning how to type. Once we placed our fingers on “home row,” a keyboard-sized cardboard box was set down over the top of our hands to prevent us from seeing the keys. This was to help train our squishy brains to type without staring at our fingers. Then, as a ruse to trick us into learning, we would play a few prehistoric computer games. These were not really games, these were educational decoys. In one game, there was an elf in a tree we had to save by typing accurately and in another, there was a running race to be won. Typing the wrong letter meant our elf fell down a branch or our runner tripped in his race. No one wanted that. They were crafty, those educational programmers.

In seventh grade, playing the typing games became a weekly activity in our Language Arts classes, but I still spent the hour wishing I was playing an actual game. Though I still liked the Trail, the game I pined after at that point was Carmen Sandiego. Oh Carmen Sandiego, that femme fatale of the digital world. The frequent flyer miles she must’ve had. I much preferred living vicariously through her world-traveling heists to plunking through mistake after mistake on the keyboard and failing to remember which finger moved to which key. More than the memorization of it, I struggled to get my chubby little fingers to find and stretch to the “Z” or “Q” keys, yet somehow, all the sentences were lousy with words like zebra, quaint, and quiz. I felt like the deck was stacked against me but to be fair, I felt that way about most things in the seventh grade.

Then, something miraculous happened. In eighth grade, I became some sort of a whiz kid. After we moved across town and I changed schools, not only was I suddenly a more-than-proficient math student—something that hadn’t happened since the fifth grade when I got my first C and thought that meant I was stupid—but all those years of typing class finally seemed to congeal into a firm understanding of what it meant to clack-clack-clack and to do so correctly. And quickly. The thing that was such a struggle to learn was now matter-of-fact, like the muscle memory of driving or riding a bike.

Here’s how it went down.

I really liked my eighth grade Language Arts class. My teacher looked a little like Delta Burke in Designing Women, she had a soft tone of voice and when I broke my leg before Thanksgiving, she brought a cookie bouquet to my house. I thought she was great. But when she announced we’d be spending time each Friday in the computer lab, I thought maybe I’d been wrong about her because she was going to make us type and typing was the worst. We’d have to do this every week? For an hour? It shocking how quick I mentally turned on her. I thought I’d escaped typing when I moved to a new school. Alas, that was a false assumption so I resigned myself to another year of the weekly torture. Our teacher even announced whoever typed the fastest and with the highest accuracy each week would win a Snickers bar—something meant to entice us to try harder—but I’d done so poorly the previous year, I had no real expectations. It was just a candy bar I’d never get.

So with a hefty amount of dread, my class marched single-file into the computer lab like prisoners to the gallows. We booted up what we discovered was a nondescript typing “game.” I use the word “game” loosely in that there were no elves or races to win, just a white screen displaying a sentence we were meant to re-type both quickly and correctly.

When our allotted time began, I began clacking away and I quickly realized I was doing noticeably better than I’d done at my previous school. My fingers were moving where they were supposed to and doing so at a surprisingly brisk pace. As the clock hands moved upward, so did my confidence and when the period ended, it was announced that I’d won in both accuracy and speed. I was so stunned, you could have knocked me over with a feather. As my cookie-bouquet-giving teacher handed me my sweet prize, I suddenly felt ahead of the curve. Perhaps this was something I could excel at—a place where I could truly kick some junior high ass. Either that or this had been a total fluke and next week, I’d go back to being an eighth grade nothing. That was a far more likely scenario.

But the next week, the same thing happened.

The week after that, same thing again.

Spacebar-spacebar. You win a Snickers.

I began pocketing candy bars every single Friday afternoon and with each win, my focus became more steely. I went from loathing the clack-clack-clack to looking forward to it. The computer lab went from being a room full of oppressive Macintosh computers to a gladiatorial arena full of possibility and as such, I morphed from a shaky insecure adolescent into an eagle-eyed champion—the undisputed computer lab conqueror. Each week, I fought to best my opponents and as I did, I felt like Spartacus, like Thor, like Britney in the “We Will Rock You” Pepsi commercial—and that felt great.

Each sentence typed felt like a lap in a race and unlike in previous years, the clack-clack-clack wasn’t slow and clunky, rather, it prattled on like exquisite machine gun fire. I was untouchable, using a superpower I was previously unaware I possessed, and I zipped through the prompt sentences, perfectly replicating them with daunting adolescent speed. Today, the average words-per-minute total is between 38 and 40 for an adult but in that computer lab, my average was 10 more than that. Whereas most teenage arrogance can be chalked up to naiveté or misdirected insecurities, as an eighth grade student in the mid-90s typing like I was, my feeling of dominance wasn’t misplaced. Week-in and week-out, I crushed my classmates.

I’d come a long way from sneaking glances under the cardboard box to see where to put my fingers and my ascent that year reached its pinnacle on a spring afternoon. For whatever reason, I’d been firing on all cylinders the entire class period. I was flying through the prompt sentences and knew this was as hot a streak as I’d ever been on. As I came to the final words, it was as if I was Michael Phelps, a full body length ahead of my competitors, my giant arms slicing a definitive victory in the water.

I pressed the spacebar for the final time and my results on screen said, “100% Accuracy. Average WPM: 60.” The world stopped and the air went silent for a moment. I’d done it. I’d done what no one in my class had done all year. It was like opening my Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle on Christmas morning! I turned to my teacher with a Cheshire grin on my face and her eyes widened as she saw my results. It felt like slow motion as she walked over to hand me my prize: the most important Snickers bar of my life.

With that, the coliseum in my head went wild. I basked in their praises, imagining my hands in the air in triumph. I was the Russell Crowe of that Arbor Creek Middle School computer lab and I was the champion. Sing on, Freddie Mercury! You’re singing about me! Outside of my head, my classmates sat silently and probably hated me for winning yet again, but I didn’t care. I was a typing gladiator.

Because the internet today has everything anyone could ever search for, I hunted down some of those original computer games including Oregon Trail. I’m secure enough to admit my aim hasn’t improved in the decades since the computer lab, I’m still such a crummy shot, but I felt like I was back in elementary school again—back in the white painted cinderblock walls of the computer lab, trying to make it on the Trail. I tried my hardest, but no bison. I also lost half of my virtual family and two oxen in the river. That’s never been my arena though. This is:

Spacebar-spacebar. Publish essay.


*This was the 90’s. We put two spaces between a period and the start of a new sentence then. Do not do this today. For the love of God, please do not do this today. One space is enough.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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