Memoir: Perfection

Fourteen years old, History report. The teacher had made an all but impossible demand: typed.Underwood-typewriter

I didn’t know how to type. Most of the kids in my eighth grade class didn’t know how to type. For a couple of them there wasn’t even a typewriter in the house. A few of my classmates had a parent or older sibling who could type, but not me, so the task was mine.

Required: three sources, I had five.

Required: ten footnotes, I had twelve.

Required: 8 – 10 pages, my handwritten report totaled 2,415 words. That translated to nine pages of typewriting.

Required: follow the teachers hand-out for the report structure: Title, footnotes, bibliography, etc.

Required: Double spaced, with one inch margins all around, check.

I was running out of time. The report was due the next day. I’d put a lot of work into it. I’d read the two books, Encyclopedia entry, and two magazine articles about Alfred Emanuel “Al” Smith, Governor of New York and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate.

Copious notes: six double sided pages worth, handwritten.

Alfred_Emanuel_SmithThe report was finished a week before, but other homework, studying for tests, and playground baseball had taken up most of my free time.

After dinner a little after 6 p.m. I dragged the typewriter, an old Underwood out of the closet, cleared everything off the little desk in my room. Hefted the typewriter on to it, set my report on one side and a small stack of blank paper on the other.

Suggestion: make sure you have a bottle of white out. White Out was new to me and proved to be a learning experience.

The typewriter was also a learning experience. It took me awhile to figure out how to line up the paper so the lines of type ran across the page mostly parallel to the top and bottom.

Since I just had to copy my paper I figured I’d get it done in a couple hours at the most. I did not figure in any extra time for my one finger typing, nor my lack of familiarity with the location of all the letters and numbers, nor my lack of familiarity with White-Out, nor how difficult it would be to follow the teacher’s report guidelines. Just putting the footnote on the right page proved to be daunting. It would have been easy if she had been kind enough to allow us to list all our footnotes on a single page in the same way we listed our bibliography on a single page, but this was preparation for high school where we might have to write a report with the footnotes on the page where they were indicated.

Required: no more than 12 corrections per page.

Required: no hyphenated words.

With the first piece of paper ready, I consulted the guide, carefully typed the title page. Somehow I managed to get through it with no mistakes. It was not lined up exactly in the middle, a little closer to the top, but it was close enough.

Next page: a mistake just three letters into the first second word, Smith. I hit the letter ‘u.’ I tried to brush the White-Out between under the typewriter ribbon, but got it on the ribbon so that when I typed the ‘I’ it was mostly white.

I learned I had to roll the paper up, apply the White Out and roll the paper back down. Since it was an old typewriter, I found that I had to pull the paper up when I was turning the roller to make sure the paper actually moved up the distance it was supposed to move with each click of the roller. I did not do that the first time, so that when I typed the ‘i’ it was a half line too high.

Toss the first page and start over again.

My next attempt got tossed just seven lines in because of the 12 mistakes rule, same with the next three attempts. It was now, 7:30. The worst thing about using White Out was that I had to let it dry otherwise whatever I typed was grossly distorted or simply smeared.

The sixth attempt was perfect, except that I forgot to leave room for the footnote.

Toss the page and start over again.

I trudged along, letter by letter, mistake by mistake, footnote by footnote, page by page.

By midnight I had four pages finished and about a half bottle of White Out left.

I was quite proud of myself when both pages five and six took just one try, one sheet of paper each, even though there were 11 blotches of White Out on page four and a dozen on page five. The sixth page did not go well at all. It had three footnotes on it the first three times I typed it, but by the time I finished it the third footnote was moved to the second line of the seventh page. It was at this point that I realized my nine page report had become a ten page report. Footnotes hadn’t figured into my initial page estimate.

When I was writing the first draft I cut a few paragraphs that totaled almost 400 words because they were more about New York than about Al Smith. However, I probably would have left them if I wasn’t worried my classmates might think I was trying to impress the teacher by going the full ten pages. I wasted some time rereading the rest of my report, trying to find something to cut, but there wasn’t anything I thought my report could do without. I decided to risk whatever my classmates might think.

Just before 5 a.m. I started typing the last page. It turned out to be the worst page of all. Twice I got to the last line, and made my thirteenth mistake. Once I made the same mistake three times. At six o’clock my mom came into the room and asked if I’d been up all night. My hands were shaking. I could hardly keep my eyes open. I was I the middle of the last paragraph with nine mistakes, when my mom opened the door.

“Have you been up all night?” she asked.

“Yes, but I’m almost finished.”

“What’s taken so long?” she asked.

“It’s hard to type and I keep making mistakes.”

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, does it?”

“Well I get only twelve mistakes per page. More than that and I have to throw it away.”

“How much do you have left?”

“Just this,” I said, pointing to the last paragraph.

“Okay, type that, then go to bed. I’ll wake you in an hour.”

“But what if I make too many mistakes? I have to finish this page.”

“There comes a point, Bobby, when you have to say, that’s the best I can do and even if you think it could be better, you finish it. You could spend the rest of the day trying to make that perfect, but sometimes perfect is only the best you can do.”

So, I typed the rest of the report, typed the final footnote, made seven more mistakes. I put a paper clip on the report, and slipped it into the pocket of a folder. Three minutes later I was sound asleep.

Rather than make me wait for the bus, mom let me sleep an extra half hour, rushed me through my wake up routine, had a bowl of cereal waiting for me, and drove me to school. The bell rang just as I was walking into the school. If I stopped moving I probably would have fallen asleep. I’d never stayed up all night before, but I was ecstatic. I finished the report. Sure there were too many mistakes on the last page, but the rest were okay, so I didn’t think I’d lose too many points for that.

As I ran over in my mind everything about my report I startled myself, the Bibliography. I forgot the bibliography.

That’s what I told the teacher: “I forgot the bibliography. The page is still on my desk at home. Could I bring it in tomorrow?” I didn’t mention anything about not having typed it up.

She studied my face a moment, decided I wasn’t lying and said, “On my desk, first thing.”

was more difficult than I thought it would be and took more than two hours, but it was on the teacher’s desk when the bell rang.

Good job: that was the first line she’d written under the A- grade. I was surprised. I would have been happy with a C.

Good job: Your report is good. Your writing is very good. Good use of sources. Well thought out.

Goof job: None of my typing errors were marked, just a couple misspellings, some grammatical mistakes and one mistake on the bibliography.

I learned a lot about writing reports, about footnotes and bibliographies. The most important thing I learned was that there are degrees of perfection and that in the end perfection was the best I could do, whatever that was, whatever it is.