Friday, May 15, 2009
The Lost Art of Penmanship
I will always be grateful to my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Kathleen Crouch, for many reasons. It was in her class that I started to identify as a writer, for one thing. It was in her class that I started to think beyond myself to the outer world and all it can be. It was because of her that I initiated my learning of other languages. She asked for permission from the district to offer an afterschool French language program. I think it was the first in the City and I imagine she did not get paid to offer the experiment. I later took French from her in middle school as well. She went on to teach high school and then many years at the college level. Long since retired, until a couple of years ago, she lived in an apartment around the corner from my home and sometimes we would chat about my school years. Once she reflected on how I would leave poems on the corner of her desk in the morning, not asking anything from her, just leaving my writings as gifts, like apples. I wish I had them now to see who I was then from an adult perspective. I do remember that it was for Ms. Crouch that I wrote my first persona piece. We were studying Pompeii and volcanoes and I wrote a story in the voice of a teenage boy dying in the eruption, being encased in ash. I wonder if she worried about me. I do believe that it was my first documentation of my sense of past life experiences.
I also appreciate Ms. Crouch each time I receive a compliment regarding my handwriting. After the past couple of weeks, I especially appreciate the attention she paid to teaching us cursive writing and general penmanship. I was one of those kids who loved the exercises to familiarize our hands to the flow of the pen. I could have done them forever and I still do a couple of them when I am doodling and processing thought.
In the past couple of weeks, I have had several conversations with teachers about how penmanship is no longer a key component of elementary education and we asked ourselves, what have we lost? I have also encountered many students, particularly middle school students, who no only cannot write in cursive (their printing is not much better) but cannot read cursive! One 7th grade teacher told me that frequently the students cannot benefit from her comments on their papers because they cannot decipher her written language.
As we discussed how this is a detriment to education and that it is a failing of the system to offer this necessary skill to students, her logic was that, with the pressure of more and more mandates, something has to give. Penmanship skill building is a lower priority. However, we are creating a generation that will not have the ability to communicate without a keyboard and printer. Even their printing is atrocious. I often cannot decipher student writing when we are working on a poetry project. It is embarrassing to not be able to figure out the student product without their help. I honestly do not know how teachers manage to read the homework. It must take tremendous effort to learn how to navigate all of these students' individual styles, etc. I can only liken it to when I was a secretary to 23 geologists, many of whom should have gone to med school, based on their penmanship. Understanding their scrawls became a learned familiarity with each person's ciphers. I survived and learned to almost read their minds. Just like teachers with students.
Another key discussion has been around the subject of pens and writing instruments. Students at one school took a keen interest in my various fountain and "designer" pens, each with a different color ink for various moods and purposes. They did not understand why I would spend $10, or $65, on a pen. I explained that these are my tools. If I were a contractor, I would have a tool belt of excellent hammers, wrenches, etc. Besides, these pens are more ecological. My fountain pens have reservoirs that I refill, using only one bottle of ink per preferred color every 2 - 3 years. No plastic to send to the eternity of landfills.
Recently, I admired the pen case that held Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson's gorgeous selection of fountain pens as he signed books in Syracuse before his lecture. I said that I just threw my pens in my purse and sometimes they leak. His reply was, "Of course they leak. They are angry..." I don't really just throw them in my purse. They go in a special pocket but they still get knocked around by Bach's Rescue Remedy, my Tide spot pen, and lip balm. This week I splurged! I ordered a leather pen case for my three prized writing instruments. It was not cheap but it is a protection for the primary tools of my trade. That is reason enough. Thank you, Dr. Tyson. I anticipate much more cooperation from the little buggers once they rest in proper berths.