Today’s local newspaper had an article about how cursive writing in grammar school seems to be going by the wayside. Oh kids, say it isn’t so! You have no idea what you are missing!
I hate to think that young students won’t get to experience the same camaraderie I shared in penmanship class back in 2nd grade. Like soldiers in the trenches, my classmates and I sat, ammunition ready, when the little hand was on the ten and the big hand was on the twelve. Armed with sharpened No. 2 pencils and black and white marble notebooks, we went to battle every morning, ferociously attacking one letter at a time in the hopes that we might someday be able to write in cursive (or dare I say “script”) the way our beloved teacher, Sister Angela, could.
Wearing a mysterious black and white habit (was it coincidence that our notebooks were the same color), Sister Angela stood in front of the class. Behind her, facing out at us, was a huge blackboard filled with gorgeous swirls and curves which created the sampling of letters, words and sentences she wanted us to try to copy during class that day. Every one of her letters, impeccably spaced, met up with the next, to form a perfectly even, balanced word. There was something both soothing and exciting about the precision of it all and I really wanted to know how to do that.
We all worked as hard as we could, tiny beads of perspiration shining on our young foreheads, to re-create the chalked words before us. I think we did so because we believed that once we mastered this type of grown-up writing we would sort of be grown-up. Well, at least that’s what I thought. But, try as I might, even with my tongue habitually peeking outside my lips to rest steadily on the right side of my cheek in concentration, I never could quite get it. (I have long since mastered the swirls and curves, and even created a few original twists to them over the years.)
Every night at home, in the safety of the non-compliant spiral notebook my mother had bought me, I’d practice my squiggles. I’d sit at the dining room table and pretend I was filling the pages with beautifully written letters and documents, instead of what actually resembled a whole bunch of EKG readings. I kept on trying though, so that the next morning at school I might finally get a shiny gold or silver star on the top of one of my pages.
I can picture my penmanship composition book right now. The cover resembled a slab of marble and was attached to the pages by woven thread. Every once in awhile, I found myself wanting to pull at a piece of that thread to see what would happen. And when I finally did one day, not realizing that it was binding the book together, the pages started tearing out one by one and I had to get a new book. Anyway, there were five or six groupings on each page. Each one had two solid lines, one above the other, with a dashed line in between. The idea was that lower case letters were to stay below the dotted line, but upper case ones and special letters with tops like b, d, f, h, k, l, and t could sneak above it. But, even though they could, their tops were only allowed to rise up as far as the solid border allowed. You had to stay within the lines of course.
Day after day we practiced. Some letters were easier than others, but I remember Q and Z as being especially brutal. No matter what, we were never allowed to erase our mistakes, even though we wrote in pencil. I really hated that, because that meant that Sister Angela was privy to my every misstep. She would be able to see every dare of my pencil to sneak outside the lines. I remember once, I tried to secretly erase a mistake, but the mess the eraser shavings were leaving on the page made it just too obvious. Since I didn’t want to get in trouble or go to hell, I never did that again.
Ah, earning gold stars and writing between the lines. Somehow, doing all of those exercises helped me to learn how “not” to need the stars as I grew up. They gave me courage to risk coloring outside the lines when it would serve me later. There was something truly profound about mastering these basics back then, something that reached far beyond learning how to write in cursive. Don’t schools these days think children need those lessons? I guess not. Actually, I wonder what would replace the gold star reward at the top of the page now anyway. Probably a new I-phone.