Machines from the past, inspiring writers of the future
Author’s note: Valentine’s Day, first-graders, typewriters and an enchanting teacher, Kelye Kneeland, deftly orchestrating it all. This is one of my favorite stories from 2020. I remember driving to Bellevue that day in February to gather the interviews, listening in the car to news headlines about COVID-19. At that point, there were 15 confirmed cases in the United States. We knew the dark clouds were gathering on the horizon but had no idea of what was to come. In normal times, this typewriter story is a charming piece about how one teacher uses old technology to engage students. But listening to this story well into a global pandemic is an incredibly vivid reminder of all of the magic and connection that happens when students and teachers are in the same room, and of all that is lost when school is carried out in little boxes on computer screens. I am hopeful that in the not-too-distant future, small fingers will once again be straining to press down on the typewriter keys in Kneeland’s classroom and that appreciation for teachers like Kneeland will be openly expressed. (This story originally aired March 7, 2020.)
It’s Valentine's Day and the first-grade students in Kelye Kneeland’s classroom at Spirit Ridge Elementary in Bellevue are patiently waiting to hand out cards to each other. They are all wearing their special kindness capes.
“I know that you are all kings and queens of kindness. When you have passed out your valentines you can start a station,” Kneeland tells the students.
The stations are where students can make even more valentines. One of them is a table with eight manual typewriters. They are all different sizes and colors, waiting for paper to be loaded and Valentine messages to appear on the page.
“So, what's giving them power?” Kneeland asks. “All of you! Your fingers are going to give them power!”
The manual typewriters force the students to slow down and really concentrate on pressing down on each key. The students write simple, heartfelt messages to each other. They write messages of love to their parents and many of the kids write sweet notes to Kneeland.
Kneeland and her students call their typing mistakes "beautiful oopses." They borrowed the phrase from a children’s book about finding the silver lining when things don’t go as planned.
It was back in the early 1980s, in high school, when Kneeland first got to know typewriters. She was not a fan. In fact, she got a D in her typing class. Kneeland said that at that time, she equated good typing skills with a career working in an office, a path that did not interest her.
So, how did Kneeland become such a typing convert? When I ask her this, she leaves the table and comes back with a wallet-sized photograph.
“I keep this picture of this little boy over on the wall near the typewriters because he was sort of my inspiration,” Kneeland says.
The photo is of a former student from five years ago. He’s got a big toothy grin. When he was in first grade, he struggled with writing. The mechanics of it were hard for him, and what he was able to put on the page was nearly impossible to read.
Kneeland says the student “was really discouraged. He hated writing. It was hard for him to pay attention for very long on any writing assignment.”
One day, Kneeland gave the boy the opportunity to try out her old electric typewriter that she used in college. After working hard for 30 minutes, this is what he wrote: I love you. Mom, you’re the best. I love you. Can you take me on a bike ride?
“He was so proud of himself and I think it was probably the first time in that whole year that he really had a sense of himself as a writer and so I decided right then and there that it was like an epiphany for me I thought I have to find more typewriters,” Kneeland recalls.
That following weekend, Kneeland combed through thrift stores. By Sunday night, she had five manual typewriters. When her other students sat down and started working, they were hooked.
Kneeland thinks it's the immediate feedback that children get from tapping on the keys: “They don't have to figure out how to make something print, get an adult ask for help. They just see it and I think it makes kids feel powerful to see themselves being capable of putting print on a paper with a machine.”
Since that light-bulb moment with the boy whose photo keeps watch over the typewriters in the classroom, Kneeland has become an enthusiastic collector. She owns dozens and dozens of machines. She shows me a photo of a typewriter mandala she made at home — yes, an east Indian design that sort of looks like a flower — created with typewriters.
Some of her typewriters have eye-catching paint jobs with names to match.
There’s one that’s actually called Valentine.
“I didn't bring it because I thought everybody else will fight over it. It's bright red,” Kneeland says, laughing.
There’s the princess, which is red and white, and the Hermes Baby, a compact typewriter the size of a large lunch box. Depending on which part of the world the machines were made and how the keys are arranged along the top row of letters, there are Querty typewriters, Azerty and Quertz.
On the day of the Valentine’s party, all of the students in Kneeland’s classroom received a valentine from her. It’s a piece of paper with a printed image of a typewriter and a note. The typewriter on the page is not a photo. It’s art. It’s a typewriter that Kneeland created using the keys of a typewriter.
Think of it as pointillism. But, instead of dots of paint, the images are created with exclamation points and commas. This is how Kneeland has made portraits of Amelia Earhart, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mr. Rogers and many more.
Kneeland says the keys create light and dark on the page.
“If you don't think of things as being what they are, an eye, or this is a pair of glasses or this is an ear, but just type light and dark, wherever you see eventually, it becomes an ear or an eye. So, even if it isn't perfect your eyes sort of figures it out for you.”
This past summer, Kneeland spent a few weeks in Paris sitting at a table on the sidewalk as a “typewriter” street artist, making portraits with her old machines. She typed a portrait of Barack Obama. A boy from Denmark really liked that one. Kneeland gave it to him as a gift. But before handing it over, she told him that she had messed it up two times while making it and had to type it out three times to create what was there on the page.
Kneeland says the boy’s dad was grateful for the message of persistence from this American stranger. The dad told Kneeland that the the boy’s mother had passed away and that his son struggled in school. Kneeland told the boy to take the portrait and to keep it as a reminder that confronting hard things and overcoming obstacles is always the right thing to do.