Writing in Cursive

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,

Letter (2)

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.

Cursive (2)
If you can read this, then you not only know cursive, but you can also read speedwriting.

Continue reading “Writing in Cursive”

Studying Geography

In the long-ago era during which I attended elementary school, the study of geography began in the fourth grade. To this day I recall some of what I learned that year, for the wide, fat textbook that we were given was filled not just with photographs but with stories—stories of the people, mostly family units, each in a different country of the world.  The tales described their holidays and customs, the foods they ate and the clothing they wore, how they attended school and worshipped, the strange animals that inhabited their countries and were kept as farm animals or pets, and even a touch of the history of their home territories.  I especially recall my awe in learning of those countries where the sun disappeared for months at a time, swathing the land in darkness, and the joy felt by the inhabitants when the light finally returned.

I absolutely loved it. Geography—how marvelous! I had never heard the song “Far Away Places”, but now I thrilled to them: far away places with strange-sounding names.  There was even a tactile element to studying geography, I found, for one of the globes that we were shown was three-dimensional, with mountain ranges one could touch, and oceans that were delineated with swells and currents.  I was enthralled and fascinated.

When fifth grade began, I couldn’t wait to see what we would learn in Geography class. I remember the anticipation as I opened the book and turned the first few pages of my new geography text.

And then the world, quite literally, crashed down about my ears. I found it hard to believe what I was seeing.  Instead of stories, tales of other lands that drew me in and caught my fascinated attention, there was a dry tome filled with information on imports and exports, language spoken, past rulers and present political tensions, oil and mineral reserves and rights….

I had never been so disappointed in my life. From that point on, I had no interest whatever in geography.  Oh, I studied it well enough; I was a decent student, and I memorized enough information to pass tests, putting forth the minimum of effort to keep a passing grade.  But I never again cared.  For me, the heart, the soul, of my geography lessons had been stolen.  Everything that made learning about the world fascinating—the people, the animals, the customs and foods and clothing and history—all of that had been taken from me, and with it, my curiosity and interest.

With all that we are now learning about the human brain, about its growth and function and development, I look back on my geography lessons and ponder why it should be that we haven’t yet figured out that all brains aren’t meant to learn the same things in the same way. Children are still taught in the manner of the 15 and 1600’s: sitting in rows, obedient (or not) to an authority figure, memorizing for just long enough to pass a quiz, or a test, or a state-sponsored exam.  Wonder, curiosity, creativity are rarely encouraged—are the exception, rather than the norm.

I recall virtually nothing of my geography lessons from the fifth grade onward; become confused, as an adult, as to the placement of countries on a map or a globe.  Yet I can still recall the cultural lore of a half-dozen lands that I absorbed in delight at the age of nine. Are there others of my long-ago classmates who learned nothing of the world during that first year of Geography class, but for whom the following lessons remain clearly embedded in their memories?  And why can we, progressive and innovative, not learn to teach each child in the manner best suited to her or his abilities?

Now, decades later, even the names of many of the countries I once studied are non-existent. Czechoslovakia, Burma, Siam—gone.  Transmuted. Erased from all but history.  The Earth turned on its axis, and those countries, those cultures, disappeared.

But not my memories of everything I learned in that first, delightful year of studying Geography.