Students are beginning to return to the classroom after spending their summer days in any number of occupations: swimming, playing baseball, attending family reunion cook-outs, reading on a porch swing, riding bikes, or perhaps at summer camp. Summertime allows for a break from early bed times, early risings and homework assignments. Remembering back, if they are anything like me, about this time of the summer they are getting itchy to have school begin again-to resume the routine and regimentation. There is something different about the air these late summer mornings; fog more frequently hangs in the air, crickets are not as frisky in their calls, and there is the slightest tinge of color on the leaves. Parents are taking their sons and daughters on the hunt for backpacks, shoes, school supplies and new clothes-unless they send their child to a parochial school, where uniforms are required.
I was sent to one of those Catholic schools, St. Mary, from grades one through six. One of the memories that stays fresh in my mind, along with memory of my blue serge uniform, is the subject of penmanship. I was taught the Palmer Method by Dominican nuns whose own handwriting differed not one stroke from the manual we copied out of. Lessons were accomplished meticulously on special paper that had to be purchased at twenty-five cents per pack. I remember, every time I asked my Mom for a quarter for another package of “control paper”, the refrain: “you kids are going to nickle and dime me to death”.
It must have been something in my personality but I loved penmanship class. I loved an unblemished sheet of paper, the challenge of creating perfectly formed letters, and the zen feeling I achieved while copying line after line of text. The only fly in the ointment was that I was left-handed. A curse-especially when we began writing in ink. My perfectly formed letters would become smudged and that blemish-free paper became dirty looking. I am sure that if they could have, the nuns would have tried to change me, but by that time it was not allowed-no ear turning or knuckle rapping. They did try to make me turn my paper to the left-as I am one of those crabbed pen-holders-but it didn’t work. True to stubborn form, I kept my paper in a right-handed position and earned accolades in spite of my handicap. I practiced handwriting even when I wasn’t in school, loosening up the letters and adding my own flourishes, because I loved how it felt to create beautiful script.
We are losing what I consider an artform in many schools as keyboarding is deemed more important to learn today. Although I would agree that it is important to learn how to type, I think that for many children, the loss of this unique form of expression that is handwriting is unfortunate. I have followed the development of my ownchildren’s, and now my grandchildren’s, handwriting from primitive scribbling, to circle and stick letters that they laboriously formed to write their names, to their adult hand. Each child has his or her unique, unmistakable form of cursive. There was a time when you knew, even before you read an addressed envelope, who it was from. I could tell my Grandmother’s handwriting before I could read and keep recipes written in her spidery but neat hand. My Mother’s brother’s handwriting was from heaven with its beautiful flowing loops and serifs and his spirit lives in his eldest daughter’s handwriting. When my former husband and I were dating, before I even put my key in the dorm mailbox, I could recognize his script on a note through the small window and get a thrill.
I love getting handwritten letters and thank-you notes, keeping every one in my “proof of love” box. Keeping letters and postcards hand written to me by my children lets me hold on to them a little closer knowing that they took time to confide in or remember me-it’s personal. In one of the final acts of my marriage I re-read all of the lovingly signed cards and handwritten letters my husband had sent to me over the decades and wept. It is a powerful thing to catch sight of someones handwriting and know in an instant their identity. I had kept all of those communiques carefully tied up in a ribbon and cherished them but I knew it would be too painful to keep them, and had to leave them behind in order to move forward. I have kept a check, written out to me as a birthday gift from a dear family friend, uncashed for more than twenty years, so that I could save her handwriting-my name and hers together in her hand-her last gift to me. I treasure the last words my Dad wrote in a letter to his five children when he knew he would not be with us long. That letter witten long hand on blue grid paper, makes tears jump to my eyes whenever I unfold it to read. The pain of leaving us is written plain on the paper for all time.
I don’t know if society is diminished by the demise of penmanship classes and I don’t know enough about the science to determine whether it is necessary for success in school. I only know that for me it is part of who I am. My carefully formed signature is my introduction to the world and I am proud of it.
Here, for your reading enjoyment, from The Atlantic, is an article by Josh Giesbrecht about the most fascinating subject of the ball point pen.