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An illustration shows fingers crawling across a keyboard Illustration: Kyle Ellingson for Polygon

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Type to Learn became a battle royale in our computer lab

Back when competitive typing was all the rage

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The specifics about my middle school computer lab have grown fuzzy over the years. I can’t recall my teacher’s name. I can’t say with certainty who regularly sat near me in the class. I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on remembering the period of the day on which the class took place.

However, one memory keeps these memories anchored — a memory that has been burned into my mind by the heat of competition.

I was waiting outside the lab for class to begin. Anticipation was high and there was a palpable buzz in the air. It was uncommon for everyone in our class to be fully engaged by the same activity at the same time, but everyone was on edge as they waited for the students from the previous class to sign out of their stations and clear the room.

I remember straining to see the leaderboard — it was barely visible if you looked through the corner of the door’s window to the far wall. Written on easel paper, taped end to end, the top 10 highest scorers in Type to Learn appeared for all to see. This was the mountaintop, the place of envy that we all strived to reach, every Thursday just before lunch.

Each battle station was equipped with a chunky IBM-style mechanical keyboard with a piece of printer paper taped to the top. The sheet of paper was the diabolical anti-cheat mechanism, meant to shield your eyes and so you could learn to trust your instincts and become a true “touch typer” — and to ensure no foul play occurred in this clicky-clacky battle royale. I’m not sure if anyone else remembers the feeling of their quivering fingers finding the little nubs on the “J” and “F” keys, after you lowered the paper over the keys. I remember practicing hitting “shift + /” three times before logging in with my username and password. I was not going to let that damn question mark foil my chance for a top spot.

If you’ve played Type to Learn, then you are well aware that comparing it to a battle royale does not do the game justice. More accurately, it could be described as a decathlon, testing speed, accuracy, agility, and endurance. It pushed your slightly slimy fingies to their absolute limits.

Challenges could range from a single character or word to long-form writing including complicated lines of dialogue with punctuation and addresses. Nothing was out of bounds. In retrospect, the game was genius, playing on the competitive nature of tweens to teach them an incredibly boring, essential skill. I can’t even imagine playing the game without the added factor of the class ranking system.

The curiously space-themed typing adventure greeted you with a NASA style countdown on the login screen. After signing in, you were reminded of proper finger placement and ergonomics: “Fingers curved, wrists flat, feet flat, sit up straight.” These instructions were given by the vaguely human voice which guided you through your subsequent lessons in a hilariously chopped and screwed style. “Practice typing jay-j-j-jay, practice typing eff-eh-eh-eh-eff,” it stammered as you slammed your fingers onto the keys faster than it was prepared to follow along. A slightly transparent pair of disembodied hands danced around a keyboard on the screen as you progressed.

We had as the original Type to Learn for Windows 98, and looking at some footage of the sequels online, it seems the developers leaned even further into the space theme in subsequent editions. I have to say the metaphor is still pretty lost on me. In the original, after your introduction to the new letters, numbers, and punctuation you were learning, the virtual keyboard and ghost hands would be replaced by a starry night sky, where letters appeared in various spots on the screen in a kind of combo typing and eye test. Then there was a mode where you would be in deep space, looking out through the window of your implied spacecraft, where the terminal was for some reason demanding you type “aaa” followed by “101.” When you entered these commands correctly, different planets would zoom across your screen, and the level climaxed with the fanfare of lasers. Who could say what was happening out there in the depths of space? A sentient spaceship with a haphazard navigation system, which is operated by doing random alphabet sequences of Simon Says? I have never asked these questions until now.

Class was spent in this intense competition, and as we progressed through the various tests and received passing grades, our level would increase. On a good day, we could progress two or more levels in a single session. There were also occasionally stand-alone typing tests to measure our speed and accuracy agnostic of how far we had progressed in the game. Every score was compared, tracked, and used for bragging rights.

Primary bragging rights were won by a simple question: “What level did you get to?” This is what was tracked on the wall, but I also remember running over to my neighbor’s computer during the shorter typing tests that were held at checkpoints throughout the semester. “71, 98,” my neighbor would say smugly as I gazed at his screen. The first number stood for words per minute and the second was percentage accuracy. I remember feeling dismayed by my measly 60, 100 (I hated making mistakes). But ultimately I knew Andy had a distinct advantage that I coveted: a desktop computer that was completely unsupervised, since his older brother was away at college. Now I had to suffer the misery of defeat, in addition to the envy of his access to a new game called Grand Theft Auto.

It’s a hazy memory that feels like it’s in a fish tank when I try to imagine it; the pure emotion is preserved perfectly, with some of the details fading or obscured. It’s also a classic ’90s memory that for a time felt completely unique to me and my fifth grade class, but now in the age of social media, it is obvious this same experience was had by a slew of other public school students all over the country who were lucky enough to have fully equipped computer labs. That takes some of the magic away, but it doesn’t change the fact that I cracked the top five multiple times during the month that we learned to incorporate the open and closed parenthesis.

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