Sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago when I first learned to write, and other times it seems like just yesterday. I can recall clearly not only the classroom in which Mother Anna Maria and Miss Gutierrez guided our third grade hands, but also the practice exercises courtesy of The Palmer Method (of handwriting). We all used that helpful wide-ruled horizontal paper with the dashed line running between two solid lines so that we could keep lower case letters where they belonged. There were regularly scheduled daily exercises that could be connected loops or parallel up-and-down lines that we practiced keeping between the two solid lines or between the dashed line and the bottom solid line.
In those days, we used pencils to print and to practice our cursive (and to do arithmetic); good ol’ #2 Ticonderoga pencils–not #3s because they were too hard, too faint, and tore our school paper too easily. Once we were well and truly introduced to cursive, tested, graded, and reasonably proficient, we ‘graduated’ to fountain pens and ‘big kid’ paper (still wide-ruled but no dashed lines). I remember my brown Esterbrook fountain pen to this day, and I became quite adept at refilling it from a bottle of blue ink. The points or nibs all had to be a certain number or a medium point. No fine points. The pen itself had a small bladder in the barrel, and I dipped the point (nib) in a bottle of ink, pulled out and down a thin metal piece on the side of the barrel, and then slowly brought the metal piece back up into the barrel. This action would have refilled the bladder inside so that the ink could flow freely once more down into the nib or point. Most of us ended up with blue smudged, slightly calloused areas on the inside of the first joint of our middle finger where the bottom of the pen barrel was pressed when we wrote.
Although there were a few desks in those early years that retained the inkwell carved into the upper left corners, they were all replaced by the end of second or third grade. We also, in our pen and pencil cases, all carried blotters–rectangles that I’m guessing were about 5 or 6 inches long by probably 3 and 1/2 or 4 inches wide. These were on our desks whenever we were writing, so that we could, well, blot each line as we completed it. I wonder it you can even buy blotters anymore, other than the large desktop ones that really don’t function as blottable (is that even a word, I wonder?) surfaces. I remember also marveling at how the very few left-handed kids could avoid smearing the ink considering the directions in which they canted their paper and angled their forearms. Amazing. And we were only in third grade!
On our report cards was a line for ‘Penmanship’ in the same general area as conscientiousness, neatness, appearance (as in personal appearance), and some other noble trait. If you turned in a messy paper, with smears and inattention to neatness, you were graded down or lost points–even if your answers were 100% correct. In case you’re wondering, ballpoint pens weren’t invented yet (egads! that sounds so weird!), so we used fountain pens for quite a few years. And, of course, if your cursive was illegible and careless then the same rules applied. Consequently, almost all of us learned to write with care and consideration of whomever might be reading our work–whether a teacher at school or a Grandma to whom we sent a thank you note.
People often comment on my handwriting, and I always give credit to the good nuns who trained me and encouraged all of their students in their handwriting efforts. I consider the fact that I enjoy cursive a gift on many levels. For me, and for many of my generation, handwriting is still something of a discipline, a courtesy, and an art. It is a singularly unique way to express oneself.
There is a movement away from cursive for kids in our culture, and I believe that is a great shame. I hope it doesn’t happen soon, for my Grandson’s sake, and for the sake of all of our children. I sincerely hope that we can turn around such a trend, and I think that maybe this might be a conversation for another time. Just maybe.