As I grew up, I was fascinated by the act of printing and cursive writing. Not the idea that we have negotiated as a culture to accept what the squiggles of our script mean, but the actual process of making marks on paper. I am right handed. The ‘godly’ hand. When I was growing up, being left handed was discouraged. The Latin word for ‘left’ is ‘sinister’. Think of all the implications of the meaning of that word. So, anyone who exhibited the propensity for being left-handed was encouraged [and I use the word advisedly] to switch to using their right hand. And all the little lefties diligently switched over.
I remember really learning to print more than my name when I was in grade one but I really don’t remember actual instruction when I began to learn to print. I see my child’s hand in my mind’s eye. I know that I was gripping the pencil correctly albeit in some form of death grip. I do remember that I developed a bone spur on the middle finger of my right hand and a callus on my thumb from holding the pencil too tightly. I have vague recollections of my teacher walking around the room, checking and correcting grips and form as we practised our letters. Having to get everything ‘just so’ between the blue and red lines and having our printing books collected to be approved by one of the vice-principals in my elementary school and worrying that my printing would not receive the institutional stamp of approval. And the problems were made worse by two things. First of all, I didn’t want to print letters that had to be so big. Imagine – capital letters that were almost an inch high and lower case letters that were just about 3/8 inch high. Second, my father had taught me how to write a bit before I was taught how to print in school. So I had to pretend not to know what I was doing. I had to hide what I knew how to write a bit. And I really had to work to figure out printing and printing was boring.
Instruction in writing, actual cursive writing started in grade four and five. I still remember ‘graduating’ in grade five to a straight stylus, nib pen and ink in the inkwell of my desk. From grade five to grade seven, I do remember that one of the ‘subjects’ we had almost each day was penmanship. Penmanship! We practised making row upon row of beautifully formed slanted lines, egg-shaped letters O, and then individual letters in upper and lower case. Then we practised the difficult combinations, like ‘b’ before ‘r’, and ‘l’ followed by ‘t’. Pages and pages and pages, week after week. I didn’t like the time spent on these exercises. They were boring. But I remember that I used to practise cursive writing during the summer. Capital ‘q’ that looked like a fancy 2. Curly topped capital ‘t’ and ‘f’ – letters that had serifs. I didn’t like my handwriting. From grade five onward, there were always model letters mounted just above the blackboard at the front of the room. My writing didn’t look like that.
However, as I grew up, my writing improved, my grip relaxed, I developed my own style of script – a combination of printed capital letters and cursive script. That being said, I remember one of my first associate teachers taking me to task because of my ‘board work’. I had three different ways of writing lower case ‘t’ and two different ways of writing lower case ‘f’ and let’s not discuss my lower case ‘g’ and ‘p’! I was 25 and my writing did not resemble the model letters that were still posted above the boackboard at the front of the classroom. What kind of modeling was I providing my students? But let’s remember that, by then, I had an ease with writing. The students in that classroom were not taught how to write legibly. Perhaps the thought was that what they had to say was more important than my being able to read it. I do know that any instruction in the actual task of cursive writing was long gone from the curriculum by the time I entered the teaching profession.
Recently, I went to the local SuperCenter to have some film developed. I always buy those camera-in-a-box things so I won’t be bummed out if I lose them when I’m travelling. At least with these things, I may take awful pictures, but I won’t lose by good camera.
In any case, as I handed the boxes to the girl at the counter [a lefty], I asked for one week service with negatives and the pictures on CD. She pulled out bags for my lovely, green cameras-in-a-box and took a pen to write. Then she smiled and asked “Name?”
With her hand poised above the paper in readiness, I noticed how she was grasping the pen. She held it with the thumb folded tightly over the other fingers which were bent into the palm of the hand. It was almost the grasp of a toddler when given one of those fat crayons to colour with. I thought, ‘Now who didn’t teach her how to write properly?’
Today, if I tried to teach how to write to a group of thirteen year old kids, they’d show me their cell phones and proceed to teach me to text message. Ah, the joys of modern technology. You almost need a special college diploma just to know how to program your cell phone!
I know that most students today use computers to complete assignments and submit them for evaluation. But then they are expected to write out in long hand all tests and exams. That becomes a particular skill for teachers — deciphering student handwriting. I know that when students do write, they usually prefer to use pencil [but I graduated from pencil in grade five!] because pencils offer less resistance on the page. But pencils don’t stay sharp and the tips break and the eraser ends get gummy and the marks on the page get smudged.
I rather miss the beauty of a handwritten note of thanks or an invitation to dine and written in ink. Somehow, smudged pencil missives or e-mail and typing just doesn’t have that same je ne sais quoi.