Monday, September 21, 2009

The lost art of penmanship. (Cursive! Foiled again.)

Once again, a skill that I have finely honed over the years is on the brink of irrelevancy.

In some quarters at least, cursive writing has apparently gone yesterday.

I learned to write in the Palmer Penmanship era, when printing was first grade, and cursive was introduced in second.

Every day, 15 minutes were set aside to practice writing, and to doing the exercises that were designed to enhance our proficiency. The exercises meant filling pages in our penmanship notebooks with "push-pulls" and "running ovals." Push-pulls were slightly angled lines, and running ovals looked like the coils of wire that were manufactured at the Thompson Wire Company, where my father worked.

Each fall, we had to fill out a piece of paper by writing our names and the sentence "This is a specimen of my best Palmer writing for September."  We did the same in the spring. Supposedly, in this first known example of No Child Left Behind performance improvement mania, someone, somewhere was going to look at the before and after and determine what kind of progress we'd made.

I can't imagine that even our nuns had nothing better to do than to look through fifty or so "before" specimens and evaluate how much better the "after" specimens were. Surely, they would rather be making Mother's Day cards out of old candy boxes and holy pictures, or wiring up Kleenex carnations for the May shrine?

But someone must have been at least collecting our writing samples, because in fifth grade, we did both our "before" and "after" writing on the same day, with instructions from Sister Saint Wilhelmina to make sure that the September versions were not as good as June's.

This was just about the most fun I had under the Wilhelmina regime. Deliberately doing something poorly? Yeah!

I'm sure that everyone's "before" was so crude that even the feeblest member of the accountability police would have smelled a rat, but this wasn't the first time that Willie had done something a bit suspect.

Earlier in the school year, the St. Dominic Savio Club newsletter, December edition, had a little contest in which any classroom that had a student with the initials "MC" (for Merry Christmas) sitting in the fifth seat of the second row (25 - get it?) had a shot at winning some prize - probably a statue of St. John Bosco, St. Dominic's teacher.

Anyway, the day before the newsletters were distributed, we had a sudden and unexpected seat switcheroo, in which Michael Curran was moved to the second row, fifth seat.

I'm guessing that every other parochial school classroom - at least all those with an MC student on board - did exactly the same.

In any event, we didn't win a prize, which served Willie right.

Ah, cursive.....

I have to admit that, these days, my handwriting - mostly notes to myself - is not all that it could be. But when called upon, I can still write a decent hand (although not as decent as that of either of my sisters, I'm afraid). And I still doodle push-pulls, running ovals, and the cursive alphabet on occasion.

In grammar school, I always wanted my father to sign my report cards because he had a nicer signature than my mother.

My mother was taught a variation on Palmer that was a bit cramped and chicken-scratchy to my eyes. Her signature was just not as elegant and flowing as my father's, which resembled that of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (My Aunt Mary has pretty much the same handwriting as my mother, and it looks fine to me now, but I still like my father's better. Weirdly, I can conjure up my father's signature in my mind more clearly than I can his face.)

But I'm quite certain that both of my parents would have logged quantity time in grammar school practicing penmanship.

Nowadays, however, kids write less often, and have penmanship drilled into them less frequently.

In an AP article by Tom Breen I read the other day, I learned that in some school systems, penmanship has taken on something of a dodo bird quality.

Charleston, WV, teaches cursive in the third grade only. Too much else to focus on - mainly computer literacy.

In some testing situations, students do their writing assignments on computers, rather than in longhand.

And "handwriting is increasingly something people do only when they need to make a note to themselves rather than communicate with others."

Some are fearful that handwriting will become completely passé; some believe that rumors of penmanship's demise are greatly exaggerated; and still others are ho-hum about the prospect of the decline in cursive writing.

I'm somewhere in the middle of the  muddle.

I still write occasional notes to people, and love to receive something that's hand-written. When I see anything that was written by either of my parents, by my Aunt Margaret, by my grandmother, I am moved and feel connected in a way that I would never be if whatever it is - it doesn't even have to be a personal message  - had been typed up. (Nothing like picking up a recipe card in my mother's hand to get me going...)

And let's face it, wouldn't everyone - at least those of us of a certain age - rather receive a birthday card with a signature in it than an e-card?

Yes, something wonderful will be lost if no one writes anything down.

On the other hand, if the rising generations conduct all personal communication entirely in text, and they get by just fine - it's their world.

So their grandchildren won't have love letters and sympathy notes to mull over, they'll have other stuff. ("Here's Grammy's first MySpace page. Here's the picture where she got hammered and flashed her....") Okay. So all the other stuff will not be an unalloyed good. But there are surely ways in which the electronic baggage that everyone will be virtually hauling around will be regarded as a treasure trove. Maybe people will have greater insight into what people were like "back in the day" when there's a much richer and more immediate stock of day to day to draw on than posed family pictures and a couple of stilted letters home from camp.

Who knows where all this is going?

One thing I found interesting in the AP article. Apparently, the College Board reports that only 15% of students used cursive for the essay writing section of their SATs; the rest wrote in print.

Now, most people do have neater printing than writing, and - let's face it - neatness does count.

But aren't these timed tests?

Who prints faster than they write?

The bottom line, of course, is that people will always - or at least until the mind-meld is perfected - need to communicate with each other.

I'm betting that we'll all find our way, cursively or otherwise.

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