Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


There's a sweet poem posted on Writer's Almanac today--"Handwriting Analysis" by Katrina Vanderberg:

On the first day of fourth grade, Mrs. Hunter
collected our penmanship samples to save
until June; by then, she said, we'd write
in the handwriting we would have all our lives.
Though she probably read that in a book
on child development, I was so excited
I could hardly stand it. In nine months
my adult self would be born, she would
send me a letter; in the ways she swooped,
careened, and crossed her t's, I could
read everything I would need to know.
We were writing ourselves into the future.
We came closer each time we turned
the silver gears in the sharpener near the door,
the wood shavings tumbling inside,
smelling as if a house were being built.

from The Alphabet Not Unlike the World. © Milkweed Editions, 2012

Throughout my later elementary school years (third through sixth grade) we had a penmanship period a couple of days a week--perhaps it was even more than that.  We used materials supplied by the Zaner-Bloser Company (still in business: Zaner-Bloser).  Little workbooks showed examples of excellent penmanship and invited us to emulate.

On the wall, over the blackboard (no sissy, modern green or brown in my day!), were displays showing how letters should be formed.  Ours were not in color, but the idea was the same.

We also had to buy little bottles of Scripto ink--black only--and pens with nibs we had to insert in the pen, then dip in the ink and do our best not to blot or smudge or drip. (An inveterate blotter, smudger, dripper, I was never too good at it all.) We soon learned that if we removed the nib and dropped it in the bottom of the ink bottle, the black ink would turn green.  That was cool.

Our pens were a stiff red plastic, grooved to fit the fingers with tiny slits along the circumference to keep the fingers from slipping.  At the end was the place where you'd attach the nib, which, periodically, we had to remove and clean.

It doesn't take boys in elementary school long to discover the ways to weaponize even the most innocent of instruments, and a pen hardly looks innocent.  When the teacher wasn't looking, sword fights would erupt (the pen may not be mightier than the sword, but it will do in a pinch).  And once--shame on me--angry with a bullying classmate who'd hurt me at lunch recess, I threw my pen (point first, natch) into his back while he sat, two seats ahead of me, bent over his work like a monk who joined the order only so he would have a steady supply of pacific men to terrorize.  He yelped.  The teacher whirled.  Yelled at him!  And--bless his dark and dingy soul--he did not rat me out.  Though, later, he made some homicidal promises, obviously not realized.

Some of the school desks I used in those days had a hole in the upper right corner, an inkwell.  I think some desks had the well in the upper left, for southpaws, like my older brother.  But maybe that's wishful thinking.  There, you could insert your bottle of ink.  Dip and write.  Write and dip.  And dream of recess.

Near the end of the year, our teachers would tell us that it was nearing the time when we would submit samples to Zaner-Bloser to see who would earn an excellence certificate.  For those competitions, I think I prepared as thoroughly as I did later on for my orals when I was working on my Ph.D.  I'm not kidding.  I practiced fiercely, tried to make my hand behave, to make it do what my mind wanted to do.  But, sadly, with no success in third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade.  Instead of the excellence certificate, I would get the one that declared that I had participated.  It didn't look exactly like the picture--but you get the idea.

It was always the neatsy-weatsy little girls and boys who won the "real" certificates.  I despised them.

And then in sixth grade ... triumph!  When Mrs. Huddle read my name, I was barely listening (years of failure had steeled me).  She had to call my name twice--and up I dashed to the front of the room, where I received the fancy certificate I'd craved and which I swore I would keep forever.

I have no idea where it is now.

A few years later, a nasty young adolescent, re-telling the wonders of this accomplishment to my mother (who, by then, had sickened of the story and wasn't all that crazy about me, either), I heard these dark words come from her: "Danny, they don't send those samples off to Zaner-Bloser.  The school buys the certificates, and the teachers fill them out and award them as they see fit."

So ... Mrs. Huddle had felt sorry for me?  Was trying to encourage me?  And the teachers had lied to us all those years!  That may have been the day when I vowed to be a hippie when I grew up--Damn the lying establishment!

At any rate, sixth grade (1955-1956) was the highlight of my penmanship days.  And my handwriting began its precipitous decline into illegibility, where it has long resided.  My students in later days were glad that I often edited their papers using Word's "Review" feature, principally because they could actually read my (typed) comments.  When I wrote comments by hand, I would often spend time after class translating for my curious students; sometimes I couldn't make out what I'd written ...

In the summer of 1969, our hasty wedding plans underway (no, not for that reason--our son was born in 1972, you perverts), Joyce and her mother were addressing envelopes for the invitations.  I offered to do one.  They let me.  They looked at it and made no more offers--and re-did the one I'd done.

And now, we've learned, our grandson's school (he's seven) will no longer teach cursive.  No one uses it any longer, they argue.  It complicates the process of learning to read.  Etc.  I'm not sure what I think about it.  It seems to cut kids off from lots of things.  On the other hand, it does seem a skill much less in demand.  And as for signatures, my mother has always merely printed her name.  No cursive.  Still ... it's a loss, and losses matter.

By the way, that old saw "the pen is mightier than the sword"?

It's part of a line in a play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Richelieu, or The Conspiracy (1839), and the beginning of that line flips the common meaning entirely: "Beneath the rule of men entirely great, /  the pen is mightier than the sword."

In other words, if your leader is great, words will matter more than violence.  If not ... keep a sharp lookout, or you may find a pen quivering in your back.

1 comment:

  1. You proved my point!
    The looped method of writing, currently known as “cursive” is living on borrowed time. It is commonly taught after the hands and movements of children have been trained for print-script. It takes an inordinate and unworkable amount of time to successfully retrain habits of movement for the different stroke directions and letter shapes of the cursive that joins letters with loops.

    The fact that learning to form letters by hand is a boost to cognition indicates that handwriting instruction may outlast keyboards and other technological means of communication.

    The solution could be the italic method. The basic letters introduced to beginning writers will later join up for italic cursive with no changes in letter formation. Please have a look: http://www.bfhhandwriting.com