A pang of the same old fear shot through me as I realized the old woman trudging up 400 South about a half block ahead of me was Miss Bickersheim, my old typing teacher. The shopping cart she was dragging behind her was the giveaway. Miss Bickersheim had dragged that cart to school every day with her materials in it, year after year after year.
It was her all right. I tried to smile at the return of my old terror. How silly. She couldn’t hurt me now. But then I had to admit Miss Bickersheim had really never hurt me or anyone. She had taught me, my classmates, and hundreds of students before us to type and type well.
My mind raced back to my first day in her classroom. Miss Bickersheim and I had gotten off to a terrible start. “My dear young lady,” she had said, her eyes glaring, “I’m afraid you and I are not going to do business well together.” I could still remember her exact words and how precisely she had said each one. She was not amused that I had mustered the courage to defend my fingernails which tapered to beautiful ovals: I had stopped biting them just the summer before, and at last they looked exactly the way fingernails should look, gorgeously, perfectly, uniformly oval. Miss Bickersheim had held up my hands to show the class how fingernails should not be for typing.
“But, but … they don’t show over the tips of my fingers … much.” I had said the words with a trembling, hopeful voice, shocked at my courage. That’s when Miss Bickersheim had glared at me and uttered those frightful words.
That night I begged my mother to let me check out of Type I. “Oh mom, she’s just awful. Awful! She never smiles. I mean never. She just glares. And she hates me now. I can’t go back. I can’t.”
My mother smiled sympathetically at my plight. “I’m afraid you’d be sorry later if you checked out,” she said. “I know how badly you want to learn to type. Miss Bickersheim may be frightening, but she is also the best. Sometimes we have to do things in life that are hard, but we’re glad later. Of course, you’re the one who has to decide.” Slowly I walked to my room where I would ultimately look for an emery board.
During the next few months, typing became a 24-hour part of my existence. At movies my fingers typed the words the actors said on the screen. While I studied for other classes, my fingers typed the words I read. One night I woke up to find that my fingers were typing on my invisible typewriter. I was typing in my sleep. And each morning before Type I, I shuddered and got a stomachache, but each morning I went.
Because Miss Bickersheim took typing very seriously, her students did too. Miss Bickersheim stressed steady, rhythmic, accurate typing. Ten points were deducted for each error. She taught blind copy typing. No lower form of typing would do. A whack on the desk with her ruler revealed the guilty student who was sneaking a peek at the cylinder or keys. And Miss Bickersheim’s five-minute timed writings were precisely that: five minutes. When she shouted her terrible “STOP!”—a stop that made the stomach jump and the hair stand on end—we stopped typing and stopped immediately.
Although we hoped for a substitute, Miss Bickersheim never missed a day. Never once did she relax long enough to lose her sternness. Never once did she joke or laugh with the students like the other teachers. And never once, no not once, did she smile. Using her own unique methods, she taught us to type. I hadn’t liked those methods, but because she had taught me to type, I had been able to land the excellent summer job I had at the Wilcox Insurance Company. Even though I was one of the younger applicants, the company had been impressed by my performance on the timed typing test, a standard part of the application. I had made only one error. But then, timed writings were “a piece of cake” without the anticipation of Miss Bickersheim’s terrible “STOP” at the end.
The Wilcox company had said I would be able to continue working part-time during the school year, again, because of my accurate typing ability. My job would help me get through college and someday I hoped typing would help me achieve my dream of being a writer. No, Miss Bickersheim hadn’t hurt me—that was certain. In fact, I knew I really needed to thank her. But I didn’t want to.
Ahead of me, she had stopped to adjust the wheel of her shopping cart and had turned slightly. Her body was slumped awkwardly over her cart and her profile looked just as frightening as ever. I wondered if her eyes were glaring. I also wondered if I would speak to her when I caught up with her in just a few yards.
My throat felt dry, and my heart was beginning to pump more vigorously. But what was she doing now? Miss Bickersheim had reached the corner, and instead of stopping at the curb of the same street I planned to cross, she had turned to face the other crosswalk. If I didn’t speed up, she would be gone. I had an excuse now. Maybe I wouldn’t have to face her after all. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to face those glaring dark eyes again anyway.
The light changed, and I knew that in just a few seconds she would be out of my life again and perhaps I would never have another opportunity to thank her. Opportunities cannot be resurrected with each dawn. Maybe that was all right with me. She was so mean and, well, I was scared. But then I thought again of what that one typing course, the only one I’d ever taken, had done for me, and I knew I would thank her, not only because I had to, but because a warmth was encompassing me. The feeling of obligation had been replaced by an urgent, happy desire. I suddenly wanted, really wanted, to thank the old woman just a few feet ahead of me.
“Miss Bickersheim!” All those years of hearing close to 30 typewriters going at once had apparently made her a little deaf. “Miss Bickersheim!” I was almost out of breath from running the last few yards. “Stop, Miss Bickersheim!” She stopped just before she stepped off the curb. I was close enough to touch her arm, and she turned and looked at me with unglaring eyes, eyes that—was it possible that there was a flicker of good humor in them?
“You were one of my students,” she said.
“Yes, I was.” I smiled and wondered what I would say next. I took a deep breath and talked fast. “I just wanted to thank you and tell you how much I enjoyed—appreciated—your class. I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I was in your class about five years ago and I was the one with the too-long nails.” What a dumb thing to say, I thought, as I realized she had probably taught hundreds of girls with nails that had initially needed trimming. “Anyway,” I continued, “I have an excellent summer job now because you taught me to type so well, and it’s helping me through college. So thanks!”
Miss Bickersheim didn’t speak for a moment, and her thick wrinkled face contorted slightly. “I wish I could say I remember you, but I had so many students.”
“Oh, that’s all right.” I assured her that I understood. After all, I had changed, and it had been a long time.
“I wish I could remember you because you’re a lovely girl—I can tell that.” Her bottom lip was beginning to tremble slightly. Was this the same Miss Bickersheim I had known? Where was the sternness? Why, this old woman was nice. And my short speech seemed to have touched her. Again there was a silence for a few moments. “I taught for many, many years, you know, 32 to be exact.” Her eyes had a glazed look. “And I taught thousands of students. But when I retired, no one said anything, not one student, and I thought, well …”
“Oh, but we all appreciate you now. Now that we realize how well you taught us, we’re all so glad we took type from you. I’m sure all your former students feel the same way I feel.”
“You think so?”
She patted my arm with a wrinkled, slightly shaking hand, and it was then that I saw the miracle. Miss Bickersheim’s thick lips parted, revealing aged, slightly protruding teeth. She was smiling! It wasn’t a pretty smile. No, it wasn’t that. But it was nevertheless a genuine, from-the-heart smile. And although it only lasted a few seconds, I had seen it.
“I did my best. I did my very best,” she said with a raspy voice.
“You were the best,” I said.
The light had changed again, and after we said good-bye, I watched Miss Bickersheim until she stepped up to the opposite curb, her old shopping cart thumping up behind her. The sun’s reflection on the silver metal made the old cart appear to be an object of beauty. She raised her hand to me before she continued her trek. And it was gratifying to see that her step was much livelier than it had been before. As for me, I felt like skipping. I felt like skipping and laughing and hugging the world because Miss Bickersheim had smiled at me.