Back to the basics…
As a young child in the 1960s attending a Roman Catholic elementary school, I learned to write on gawdawful, flimsy, triple-lined paper—paper made from such poor pulp that it had a faintly brown cast and even occasional wood chips hiding beneath the blue lines. Regular #2 pencils had a terrible habit of tearing through these fragile sheets; it was impossible to erase a mistake neatly, as the graphite just smeared over the shoddy surface.
But even worse was our promotion, usually in fourth grade, to the dreaded cartridge pen. Made with thick nibs that were supposed to encourage neat writing, these cheap ink pens scratched and stuttered across the surface of school notebook paper. They had a terrible habit of leaking and even exploding, usually over a vital test paper. One always approached with trepidation the necessity of inserting a fresh ink cartridge into the pen. No one, teacher or student, managed to achieve this without ending up covered in ink—blue or blue-black ink, only, thank you. Colored ink, like the more rational ballpoint pens, was not permitted.
But putting aside lousy first grade paper and cartridge pens with their shortcomings, the one thing those parochial schools taught competently, even superbly, was handwriting. Penmanship. Cursive.
Starting in the second grade, just after we had mastered printing, we students were given penmanship lessons every Friday afternoon. (As an aside, what a brilliant, master strategy: Take a bunch of kids who want nothing more than to get the hell out the door of the classroom for the weekend, and use the last hour of Friday afternoon to teach the two least cerebral classes imaginable–Art and Penmanship!) But as a 7-year-old child, these lessons in cursive infuriated me. I already knew how to write; why did I have to learn it all over again?! But learn it I did, scribing line after line of looping circles across the page to acquire the feel of writing in cursive. I was criticized by my nun teachers and forced to use a special notebook paper when I failed to end each word by drawing the final hook on the letters to the appropriate upward spot of each line. Struggling valiantly through the irritating lessons, I began to find that, not only was cursive writing much faster, but it could also be far prettier. I listened in excitement when my beloved third grade teacher, Mrs. Dryer, explained that she believed the letter “L” to be the most graceful of all the alphabet. My middle initial was L! I began to try ever harder to produce a graceful, swooping letter L,
and finally succeeded, to the praise of my teacher. My middle initial–indeed, my entire signature–is written, to this day, in those elegant, flowing loops.
But worlds turn; times change. Faced with the onslaught of the computer era, teaching cursive began to seem to school officials evermore like a waste of time. Why did one’s signature matter when, scribbling it onto a touchpad, it looked nothing at all like a signature, anyway? Schools began to drop the teaching of cursive writing, and I wondered, sadly, how any future American child would be able to read the signatures at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence.
My sadness bubbled up into laughter, though, when I realized that I had a skill even beyond cursive writing which ensured that anything I wrote would remain a secret: Because I knew how to write in cursive, I‘d long ago mastered the art of Speedwriting, a form of simplified shorthand. After using Speedwriting at my job for years, I continued to jot notes and make lists in that quick and easy stenography.
To anyone who’d never learned cursive writing, though, Speedwriting was a code as good as any spoken by the famed Windtalkers.
I laughed even harder, hearing a young individual complain that we should all just write “normally”. No, I responded; I shall eschew the kindergarten printing and continue to write as an adult.
But for me, the proof in the pudding came when an acquaintance who teaches night classes crowed over the problem his students had recently encountered. Forbidden to use audio recording or iPads during classes containing case examples which, though they preserved anonymity, included sensitive information, the students were forced to take notes the old-fashioned way, with paper and pen (to which the class leader could command, at sensitive moments, “Pencils down!”). But they couldn’t do it. Able to print only, lacking the skill of the faster cursive, the students struggled miserably as they tried and failed to keep up while noting essential information.
There are just some delightful moments in life that truly vindicate one’s beliefs.
Continuing to teach writing in cursive ain’t such a bad idea, after all.
If this post appealed to you, you might also enjoy “Teachers, Good and Bad, Part 1”, which you may locate by scrolling below to the Archives. It first appeared on January 22, 2018.