Author: Cornish, Rick

Why I Type So Fast
I’ve been asked by a few folks how I can keep this column up, day in, day out. Well, it’s mainly because I’m a terrific typist. One hundred-plus words a minute with few mistakes, and the mistakes I do make have more to do with poor spelling skills than with typing. And I owe it all to my high school biology teacher, Mr. Pitman, and a gopher I called Grace. Let me explain.

I was not a good student in high school, but I knew I wanted to go to college. My counselor, Mr. Thornton, gently encouraged me to explore options in the trades, “just as a back-up”. My mom and dad weren’t sure what I should do when I graduated high school, but they were pretty sure it shouldn’t be go to college. My father never really trusted people with a college degree. “Get a job and join a good union,” he’d say, “and you’ll be set.” I was the only person who thought I was college material—it was like I was this brilliant person trapped inside the body of a C-minus student. So I insisted on taking college prep courses. What could Mr. Thornton say? You’re an idiot? You’ll flunk out? Learn to weld like your dad?

So in my junior year at Hayward High School I got the biology class I asked for. There were two biology teachers at the school, Mr. Pitman, a gentle, quiet nerdy guy with an over-grown Jack Web crew cut and horned rimmed glasses who’d taught at Hayward High since the beginning of time; and Miss Fischer, a first year teacher who looked younger and was better looking than most of her students. I got Mr. Pitman.

I wasn’t particularly worried about doing well in biology, which was my second mistake, my first being enrolling in the class to begin with. By the end of the first month I was already foundering and Mr. Pitman was already aware that there was a problem. It was obvious he wanted me to succeed. He told me privately that he thought once we started doing labs I’d get into the swing of things. So when on one Friday, near the end of the period, Mr. Pitman announced that the following Monday we’d get to work with frogs, I was excited. We listened as our teacher, dressed in his starched white lab coat, told us what to expect. Mr. Pitman had a funny way of talking….he would end every third or fourth sentence with a sigh and a little smile and then go on talking.

“We will be investigating the contraction of the skeletal muscle of the frog’s leg. The principle we will address is that of a single stimulus to a muscle which produces a simple twitch. The twitch is significant for study because it is this type of single contraction from which all normal body contractions are built.” Mr. Pitman sighed and smiled. “The force exerted by the twitch is determined by the number of motor units (a neuron and its muscle cells) responding at the same time. Increasing the voltage used to stimulate the muscle will increase the number of motor units contracting at the same time. This is referred to as multiple motor unit summation.” Another sigh and smile.

I felt encouraged. I was actually getting some of this. We were going to make a frog’s leg twitch. I didn’t exactly understand why, but that didn’t especially bother me. Next Mr. Pitman told us about pithing (a brand new word for me) and muscle preparation. “The tool used for pithing the frog and preparing the frog gastrocnemius muscle is this.” He held up what looked like a dowel with a needle stuck to one end. “The object of the pithing operation is to destroy specified parts of the central nervous system. In this case the frog is pithed as a means of immobilization and anesthesia. Generally, pithing the spinal cord only is adequate.” Some of the girls in the class squirmed in their seats, while the macho boys looked eager and ready to pith. One kid groaned, “Wow, this is cool. We gotta wait til Monday? Let’s do it now” Mr. Pitman sighed and smiled. “Yes, Monday will be the day, class. Your lab coats and frogs will be all ready for you on Monday.”

So this was it. Mr. Pitman had told me he thought I’d do well in lab, and this was going to be my chance to prove him right. That night at home I obsessed about the pithing experiment, trying to imagine each step. I even tried looking frog pithing up in the encyclopedia, but no luck. I think I even dreamt about frog legs, and then the next morning the idea came to me. (The brilliant me, not the C-minus student in whose body I was trapped.) If contraction of the skeletal muscles of a frog was a big deal, how much better would the contraction of a mammal’s muscle be? A LOT BETTER, I reasoned.

My mother’s name was Millie. Millie felt about the plants in her garden the way most mothers feel about their children. She nurtured them with plant food and supplements and love and she protected them from their enemies. At least she tried. Of late she’d been fighting a losing battle with a gopher, so when I informed my mother that Saturday morning that I would dedicate my entire weekend to “getting that damned gopher”, Millie was thrilled. I suppose she was a little suspicious too, but mostly he was glad that I was finally taking an interest in the yard. My mother suggested several strategies for doing the gopher in—she was a farm girl and had been around the track more than a few times when it came to killing what she called “vermin”. When I told her I wanted to catch the gopher alive, she sent me to the hardware store for a live catch trap. And no, Millie didn’t ask me why I wanted to catch the gopher live. I don’t think she wanted to know.

By late Sunday afternoon I had my gopher. I guess I didn’t really know what to expect; it was smaller than I thought a gopher would be, and lighter in color. For whatever reason, I just assumed it was a she and immediately dubbed the gopher Grace, after my aunt Grace. I poked some holes into the top of a shoe box, put Grace in there with a carrot and a piece of celery, and fastened the lid down with a piece of duct tape. That night I lay awake thinking about school the next day….generally I didn’t look forward to going to school on Monday mornings (or any mornings), but this time it was different. I was going to earn my first A in biology.

Next day Grace spent the first three periods in her shoe box at the bottom of my locker. I checked on her before going to lunch—she hadn’t touched the celery, but she’d worked on the carrot a little. I gave her some water in a little juice bottle cap. I don’t quite know how to explain this, but I felt somehow grateful to the gopher. I wanted her last few hours to be comfortable. I felt no malice towards Grace. And I remembered what Mr. Pitman had said the Friday before:” ….. the frog is pithed as a means of immobilization and anesthesia.”

I arrived to biology class a little early that day and stowed the shoebox under the lab table on the floor. My plan was simple—I would substitute Grace for the frog Mr. Pitman would give me, follow all of the instructions for the experiment, and document the results, which I assumed would be different enough from everyone else’s in the class to earn me an A for the lab session. Did I mention that I was an idiot in the eleventh grade?

It’s difficult to describe what came next… all happened so fast. When I pulled the duct tape off the shoebox the top came off with it, Grace shot out in a blur and the entire classroom went crazy. Girls were screaming, boys were chasing the gopher up one aisle and down the next and Mr. Pitman was banging his pointer on the top of his desk and saying, almost to himself, “People….people….. people” with little sighs and smiles in between. The girl who sat in front of me, Claudia Davenport, glared at me. “I hope you’re satisfied,” she hissed. She’d seen the whole thing, knew the gopher was my gopher, and worst of all, she knew what I’d planned to do with it. (Claudia would later become my first wife and the mother of my two sons and I’ve often wondered if the Grace incident hadn’t gotten us started off on the wrong foot.)

It was a lon
Posted:  12/8/2003

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