It was the wish of Bellingham School District No. 501 that starting in the seventh grade, each student write a weekly theme and an annual term paper—and continue this practice throughout all of his or her junior high and high school years. Themes were easy. I would sit down and write whatever cockamamie idea came to mind, turn it in, and then have it torn apart by college English majors who graded my work with a red pencil and hatchet.
Unfortunately, we weren’t taught much about how to actually write. In fact, I don’t remember being taught anything about writing. The theory was: throw young writers in the water and see if they learn to avoid torturing a metaphor. In any case, every week I wrote a paper that would come back marked with terms such as AWK, ¶, and DANG MOD.
This confidence-killing technique was small potatoes compared to the esteem-crushing, soul-sucking damage caused by the annual term paper. Unlike themes, term papers required library research from original sources. That meant I had to walk a mile to my grandfather’s grocery store and buy three-by-five note cards.
“Poe, Twain—and I believe the Bard himself—used three-by-five cards,” My seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Lewis, explained. “It’s how you organize your thoughts.”
Required cards in hand, I walked another mile and a half to the city library to start my research. And yes, I did have to fight off wild dogs along the way. It was the fifties and wild dogs roamed the countryside. No kidding.
Once I arrived at the library, I milled about looking confused until Mrs. Huffington, the reference librarian, asked me if I needed help. This was, of course, said in a tone that indicated needing help was a sign of being hopelessly dimwitted. I told her about my upcoming term paper, explaining that I had narrowed my subject matter from a treatise on the universe to twelve pages about the planets.
Mrs. Huffington sneered at my topic, which she said was “grossly unfocused,” took me to a three-mile-long card catalog, and then stood me in front of the P drawers. I chuckled at the sound of the expression “P drawers,” while thumbing my way through an endless list of references about planets. Eventually I picked a reference, recorded the code required to find it, and headed to the stacks.
After a long and dispiriting search, I came to a group of journals that sported numbers, letters, and secret symbols similar to the code I had written, only to discover that the edition I wanted wasn’t on the shelf. So I hiked back to the sea of boxes, selected another reference, wandered the stacks, found the journal, turned to the section that had the information about planets, and—voilà—discovered that the pages I needed had been ripped out! This heinous act had surely been perpetrated by a previous student who didn’t want to go to the trouble of writing down the information on his three-by-five cards. And obviously they couldn’t photo copy the pages because the copy machines you can now find in every library nook and cranny hadn’t been invented yet.
By now it was growing late, so I exited the library and started down the road that would take me the two-and-a-half miles home—without a single piece of information for my term paper.
It only got worse. Between slogs to the library, I had to read extremely complicated material about the planets—including Saturn, Neptune, Pluto, Mickey, and Dopey. (I was tempted to work this line into my term paper, but came to my senses). I also had to learn about the proper use of Latin footnote terms such as “op. cit.” and “ibid” in preparation for the imminent resurgence of the Roman Empire.
Then came the monumental job of typing the paper on our family’s manual Remington portable typewriter. And heaven forbid I make a mistake! Typos had to be erased with a steel-belted, paper-shredding Eberhard Faber eraser. I made so many mistakes and attempted so many corrections, that my final product was a real dog’s breakfast. It was so trashed, if you held it up to the light, it looked like a papyrus manuscript—had ancient scholars used an Aramaic Remington portable.
After feverishly working on my project for several weeks, I submitted it and eagerly awaited my grade. I had worked hard and was proud of my final document. I shouldn’t have been. It came back covered with red marks of all sorts—and the grade of a C- over a D+.
“Look at this wonderful paper,” Mr. Lewis exclaimed as he held up Sally Welch’s glorious effort. My classmate, Sally, had her term paper typed by her mother on a fancy electric machine, and it had zero typos. Plus her parents had done most of the research and writing, earning Sally an A+ over an A+. But that didn’t stop Sally from smiling broadly as Mr. Lewis heaped on the praise. She was clearly bound for glory. Whereas I, the C- over D+ student, would probably end up in the food services industry as my school guidance counselor had suggested earlier that year. No lie.
At this point you may think I’m about to launch into a rant about questionable teaching methods and egregious inequities. Not so. I’m simply trying to provide background material, particularly for people under the age of forty, for the thanks I’m about to offer.
“What thanks?” you ask. I recently spoke to a group of Google executives. But before I started into my assigned topic, I offered my heartfelt appreciation for their work, as well as the work of other search-engine designers.
I had just completed an entire book, chock full of citations from original material, and in so doing, was not once attacked by a dog. I never had to hike in the pouring rain only to discover the reference book I sought was missing. I never had to pull a journal down from the shelf only to have key pages ripped out. Instead, I cheerfully scooted my computer mouse here and there, occasionally twitched my index finger, and magically uncovered material that years earlier, would have taken days to find.
I now have the entire library of congress—along with just about anything anybody who ever had a thought has had to say—at my fingertips. Thank you search-engine inventors, code writers, data scanners, and people who vacuum and do the plumbing for The Cloud. Thank you for turning our world into a place where information is as available and cheap as air itself.
I know, we’re not always sure what to do with all the information that silently beams into our space in giga-, tera-, and super-giga-tera bundles. Nevertheless, it’s time to offer a “good on ya” to everyone out there who has made information that used to be largely unattainable a mere click away.
My guess is that my grandkids will never have a clue how hard it used to be to research and write a term paper—and I’m fine with that. But one thing is for certain: as they put together their papers, they won’t be chased by dogs.