2nd Pencils Poised

It was so exciting to be starting Form III, on the brink of learning subjects such as French and Shorthand, and consigning English and Mathematics et al to lower priority–perhaps initially, anyway. Shorthand, in particular, was a mystery to be revealed, available only to a select few. I was one of them.

My subject teachers turned out to be tyrants and brooked no dissent, but I accepted the status quo. What else could I do?


Intervening years passed inexorably, inevitably.  Then I found myself in front of a class, chalk in hand, about to embark on my own journey of enlightening young minds. Not as despotic, of course…

I remember one class, in particular, and Craig. He was different, a serious young lad, quite earnest. He informed me that he’d chosen this subject as he had ambitions to join the Police Force—an insensitive appellation now superseded.

It made sense to me. He explained how he expected that he would be called upon to prepare case notes and record interviews. Shorthand skills would be handy, he confided.

The girls in that class, however, were not so forthcoming. My assumption was that parents, especially mothers, wanted their daughters to leave school with job skills. Pragmatism dominated subject choices in the seventies. Most students left after completing their Junior Public examinations and married young. Discussion about career pathways would have been cursory in many Cairns homes of that time.

The school year commenced. Craig was voted form captain. Fresh-faced Year 9s, spiral-bound notebooks open at the first page, 2B pencils, sharpened and ready, seemed eager for me to initiate them into the world of the brilliant Sir Isaac Pitman. Perhaps slightly wishful thinking on my part…

At times it was tedious, advancing along the path signposted by dictums I’d memorised during teacher training: listening for the sounds, learning that straight lines and curves represented consonants and dots and dashes served as vowels. There was much rote learning and repetition, and drilling, drilling, drilling…

Hot summer afternoons were barely tolerable, as the sole ceiling fan in the room strived to ease our discomfort. I imagine I was one of many who hoped that the distant thunder presaged a cooling downpour. Meanwhile they practised the long list of short forms in their texts and listened hard for the bell…

I equated Shorthand to learning a foreign language, aligned with manual dexterity and a sound base in grammar, punctuation and spelling part of the mix to achieve success. It was a chain-link process. Pressure was applied continuously. Some succumbed. But most persevered.

Students were keen. They’d uncovered an aptitude which they could never have imagined just the year before. It was a joy to see their looks of determination and heads bent over, as their pencils raced across the lines.

Their obvious pleasure in their progress and the mastering of the skills involved heartened me in my nascent teaching career. Student transcripts, prepared on clattering Olivetti’s and Remington’s, the only two brands at our school, had to meet the minimum standard of 98% accuracy. No leeway allowed.

We had fun together amidst the hard work. I was impressed with the positivity in the classroom and how the students commiserated with and congratulated each other when papers were returned after marking. The daunting pass requirement seemed to impel them to push for a ‘pass’.

Shorthand had a built-in novelty factor. It was unlike any other subject and it was useful for instances which required note-taking. Students would strive to interpret what seemed like random scribbles into sentences that made sense. Primary school seemed a long time ago.

Those young teenagers scattered to the wind too soon. Occasionally, I heard feedback: Colleen was eventually promoted as secretary to the mayor and took his dictation and recorded the minutes of Council meetings. Craig rose through the ranks of policing, married a local girl and had three daughters. Mary worked in administration at the Cane Growers’ Association. Barbara went to London and was snapped up by an eminent broker on the Stock Exchange. He was impressed by her note-taking and English language skills, she happily informed me on her return, when we met at the Big Apple for coffee and conversation.


Pitman’s Shorthand and Touch Typing are terms now relegated to a bygone era. Today’s teenagers would scratch their heads and laugh at their grandparents’ attempts to explain, whilst they, nonchalantly, hold the miracle of iPhones in their hands.

Those teenage characters who crossed my path, earnestly taking and transcribing notes must have been dazzled, as I have been, by advances in technology. I can imagine that many, as I am, will be hard pressed to recall the last time they took shorthand notes with a pencil. Ancient/modern history in our times…

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