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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cursive Writing

Does that picture above look familiar?

Look at it again. Apparently, according to this article in the NY Times, it may be one of the last times you'll see it.

Until recently, one could walk into any elementary classroom just about anywhere and see cursive lettering posted somewhere in the room. Apparently, that is less and less the case.
Students nationwide are still taught cursive, but many school districts are spending far less time teaching it and handwriting in general than they were years ago, said Steve Graham, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University. Most schools start teaching cursive in third grade, Professor Graham said. In the past, most would continue the study until the fifth or sixth grades — and some to the eighth grade — but many districts now teach cursive only in third grade, with fewer lessons.

“Schools today, we say we’re preparing our kids for the 21st century,” said Jacqueline DeChiaro, the principal of Van Schaick Elementary School in Cohoes, N.Y., who is debating whether to cut cursive. “Is cursive really a 21st-century skill?”
Well, is poetry a 21st-century skill? Or, writing romantic love letters?

Come to think of it, does anyone still write romantic love letters, or is everything communicated in text messages and emails?

In 'text', 143 = I love you. One number for each of the letters in each of the words.

It's clever, but you know, that just doesn't do it for me.

I love getting or giving little handwritten notes that say "I Love You" at the end. In cursive writing, of course.

In the classrooms of my elementary school - starting around the third grade and continuing until about the sixth grade - we practiced cursive writing. We had penmanship classes, and penmanship contests the way we also had math and spelling and reading contests.

Baby Jesus feeding the Pagan Babies
I went to Roman Catholic School, so we also had Pagan Baby Contests.

It went like this: You had to bring in a dime every week (some of the nuns allowed you to bring in pennies or nickels which you could save up and exchange for a dime) which would then fit into a slot on a poster which had your name on it. When you got to $1, you were allowed to 'name' your Pagan Baby and the money would be sent "to the missions" so "Father" could baptize one of the little Pagan Babies with your name.

Sister told us that we were saving the "little savages" Africa or Laos or Cambodia or Viet Nam, baptizing them in the name of Jesus. I know. Hard to believe that we once talked that way - and, meant it.

There were 30-40 kids in my class. We had Pagan Baby Contests every 10 weeks. Not a bad fundraising scheme, eh? I used to imagine that there was a village in Viet Nam or Africa somewhere with lots of girls named "Elizabeth".

Anyway, even the Pagan Baby Chart and the Pagan Baby Certificate you got were all written in Cursive.

We would practice and practice and practice our cursive writing, following the broken lines that formed each upper or lower case letter and number,  until it was letter-perfect.  Then, we were allowed to go on our own.

Sister would sit at her desk and call out a letter: "Upper Case 'G"'.  She'd repeat it three times slowly enough for us to scan the banners around the room or the poster near her desk which displayed the alphabet in cursive writing.

"Lower case 'd'".  "Lower case 'd'". "Lower. Case. 'd'".

Toward the end of the year, Sister would get out her egg-timer. We'd go through a similar exercise, but the one who finished first would get a special prize.

Usually, it was another Pagan Baby, but this time, you knew enough to choose Sister's name. Or, Father's name. It was just good Roman Catholic piety not bring too much attention to yourself and share your good fortune with others.
Sally Bennett, an 18-year-old freshman at Central Arkansas, signs her name in all capital letters and never gave any thought to it until she took the ACT college entrance exam. Students must copy a prompt, with explicit instructions that they do not print. So the classroom of test-takers tried cursive, Ms. Bennett said.

“Some people in there couldn’t remember,” she said. “I had to think about it for a minute. It was kind of hard for me to remember.”
I know. I know. Some of you are giggling and making snide remarks about Arkansas. Stop that. There are other, critically important things to consider.

People are unemployed. People do not have access to adequate health care. People all over the world are starving. Not to mention the fact that our educational system, itself, is in a shambles.

So, why am I distressed about the apparent demise of cursive writing?

It's not the pragmatics of the discipline, although, apparently some pediatricians say that that learning cursive helped students hone their fine motor skills. It’s the dexterity, the fluidity, the right amount of pressure to put with pen and pencil on paper.

No, I'm mourning the loss of the artistry of cursive writing. The beauty of it, when done well. The personalization of a handwritten note. The romance of its lovely swirls and curves.

So enamoured am I with cursive writing that whenever I see a little stationary store in town, I always stop in and buy a little something, just to do my part to keep the tradition alive.

I always try to write out personal notes of thanks after dinner with friends, but I have succombed, of late, to sending out Jacqueline Lawson email cards for birthdays and anniversaries or special holidays.

I draw the line at sending out email condolences for deaths. I'm sorry. I think it's just tacky.

I should be glad, I suppose, for progress. At least now we're allowing left handed-kids to write with their left hand. If I heard it once, I heard Sister remind us three times a day that the Latin word for 'left' is 'sinistra', from which the word 'sinister' is derived, and no one wants to be called 'sinister'.

It was cold comfort as I watched some of my classmates with their left hand tied (!!) to the chair of their desk so they wouldn't be 'tempted by Satan' to use it.

While I'm glad we have a better understanding of brain function, when it comes to the demise of cursive writing, I fear we're throwing out the baby with the bath water, as it were.

Just the other day, a story hit the media about historians finding a stack of index cards in the Ronald Reagan Library.

In his own hand - in "impeccable writing" - were quotes Reagan would use in his speeches. Another stack of index cards contained one-liners and jokes. It has all been collected and will appear in a new book called, simply, The Notes.

Biographer Douglas Brinkley, who edited The Notes, writes
All of the notes were handwritten. When Reagan was recopying various quotations, he was especially neat. His scrawl is impeccable—seldom does he employ a cross-out or correct a mis-start. Clearly, legibility was a high priority to him. Sometimes he uses an asterisk or makes a hearty underline for emphasis. Shorthand is often the order of the day.
I could never be described as a fan of "Uncle Ronny" - I still remember government cheese, number 16 cans of peanut butter, ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches, and, of course, AIDS - but I just might pick up that book about him the next time I'm in a bookstore.

Yes, I still go to bookstores, even though I love my Kindle.

I think one page of cursive writing can tell you more about a person than an entire megabyte of emails.

If there were a font on 'blogspot' in cursive, I would use it all the time, risking as I would, a certain percentage of younger readers. 

"Is cursive writing really a 21st-century skill?"

Is art a 21st century skill?  Do beauty and romance have no place in our future?

Beauty and romance and art may not define progress, but they define the humanity of our civilization.

If you look closely, in between the dips and curves and flowing lines of prose or poetry or notes, you'll find the face of an individual human being - someone who had passion and emotion and humor behind their thoughts and opinions.

You simply can't convey all that in an emoticon.

And, without a vehicle to express individual passion and emotion and humor, I fear whatever progress we make will not much advance civilization.

Gandhi was once asked what he thought about Western Civilization. He said, "I think it's a good idea."

I do, too. But I don't think we're going to build it on block lettering.

I can hear some of you wail, "Oh, but my handwriting is so bad!" Well, I think the nuns of my youth would be horrified to see my handwriting today.

Don't like your handwriting? Well, work on it. Practice until it gets better. I'm planning to do that, starting today.

Think of it this way: you'll be making your own artistic contribution to the advancement of civilization - one lovely cursive letter at a time.

'143' is okay. It's alright, as far as it goes.

"I love you," written by hand, in cursive style, just might communicate a beauty that could launch a thousand ships.

39 comments:

PseudoPiskie said...

Sigh. Too many years as a programmer filling in little boxes has erased most of my cursive writing ability. The only thing I "write" is the amount on the few checks I write and I have to think to form the letters. Everything else is in my own version of printing which some say is unreadable. For that reason I rarely write anything I can't email. Sorry but this old lady is too modern tho I appreciate your sentiment.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Don't apologize. I fear I am an incurable romantic, piskie. Incurable.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

I think that writing (and decorating!) words is a good way to engage with their spelling and even history/etymology. When you take the time to write a word with a calligraphy pen, holding it at the 45-degree angle necessary to get the right thick and thin parts, it's a meditative exercise. My handwriting has deteriorated, but I often sit and meditate over a remembered phrase like "Create in me a clean heart," as I concentrate on the angle of my pen.

Daisy said...

Brought back a lot of memories Elizabeth. I also attended Catholic School - Blessed Sacrament and St. Antoninus in Newark, NJ. For me they were wonderful years, and we also "rescued" pagan babies.

I use my computer more than a handwritten journal, but if you are feeling a bit deprived for "cursive", think of all the young people who are learning calligraphy! As an art form!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Ah, Elizabeth, I fear I'm already losing the art of handwriting from lack of use. The other day, I wrote a note to a friend who had fallen and injured herself badly enough to require hip surgery. My friend is older than I, and I knew anything but a hand-written note would have been less than satisfactory - for me, as well as for her. Yikes! I make so many mistakes when I write by hand now that sometimes it takes three or four tries before I get something satisfactory enough to send on, with the waste of both effort and stationery.

Alas, no wonder my grandchildren write so badly. They are not being taught handwriting. I'm with you. I believe that children's brains will suffer loss without the practice of of the fine motor skill of handwriting. But then, what do I know?

About the pagan babies, our school did the collections, too, but, as I recall, the cost of naming a baby was $5, and I'm older than you are. Perhaps different schools charged different prices for the naming.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I don't think that school exists anymore in Newark, Daisy. Well, Blessed Sacrament Church exists but I think St Antoninus was closed. Sigh!

Really? Young people are learning calligraphy? As an art form? That's wonderful! Where do I sign up?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mimi - That's the thing about a handwritten note. You really have to think before you write it down. No chance to go back and correct. And, no spellcheck. You actually have to think BEFORE you write. It's good practice for thinking before I open my mouth - something else I'm not always good at.

I grew up in a working class, immigrant neighborhood so $5 was a bit steep when I was in elementary school. I remember it being $5 in Confirmation Class. We also had "special funds" once a year to buy "Father" a new suit and new shoes. Hand to Jesus!

Grandmère Mimi said...

And I believe we even spoke of "buying" the babies. Pagan babies for sale!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mimi - The language I remember is that we were "buying" them so we could "rescue" them.

How awful is that?

Grandmère Mimi said...

Elizabeth, I haven't thought about the pagan babies for years, but it was a damned atrocious idea. What were they thinking?!!!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

What were they thinking? Making money to support their understanding of 'mission'. It worked. And, for many, many years later, I was soured on the whole understanding of 'mission' - b/c it was such a colonialist approach - the church as the long enforcement arm of Western Culture.

How awful!

susankay said...

My father worked in a company overly endowed with advanced degrees and appointments to impressive task forces -- all of which his fellows (and they were almost all men) announced not subtly with framed degrees and certificates of appreciation. My father hung his Palmer handwriting certificate in his office! (rather than his PhD in Physics from Yale)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

MC - What a wonderful idea for a spiritual meditation. Thank you. Now I really am going to sign up for a calligraphy class.

DeanB said...

When I was in college I realized I couldn't read my own writing, and I did work on it, but I worked on italic rather than cursive and ended up with something generally legible and about as fast to write as cursive.

As to a cursive font for the computer, that wouldn't be handwritten either. You could write on paper and post a .jpg of your handwriting if you really want.

These days my carpal tunnel & arthritis usually force me to stop and regroup twice in the middle of signing my name. Even the italic is shaky. There's no hope for me and cursive.

I do think there's a big difference between paper mail and email, though. Homemade postcards? coming right up.

Will said...

I'm middle aged enough to think that we are losing something greater. For me handwriting and drawing are related means of expressing ideas and emotion. In the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic, the article "How Genius Works" shows examples of design process. Most of these are freehand sketches. I think that there is something between the playful mind, the hand, and the eye which we need for discovery and exploration.

I also think that there is something intimate in the nature of handwriting (especially cursive). This struck me years after my parents died and I found a cache of letters from them that I had saved. There was more on the paper than their words.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

susankay - Great story. "The Palmer Method"! That was what I was looking for. I could 'see' my old penmanship booklet in my mind's eye, but I just couldn't make out the name on it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

DeanB - Ah yes. Arthur Ritis. Does make handwriting a bit more difficult. Typing, too, I understand.

Homemade postcards? Fantastic.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Will - I love what you wrote. I treasure the recipes I have handwritten in my mother and grandmother's own hand, with their scribbled notes in the corner. It's absolutely wonderful - the 'secret ingredient' to a successful turnout.

I am looking forward to reading that piece in The Atlantic.

Matthew said...

I not only like penmanship, but in high school I took a shorthand class (they still offered those if you can believe it, but it was phased out a few years later). I was the only male who took that class. The funny thing is much of it has stayed with me and it has helped me out in meetings because I can transcribe almost word for word what certain people are saying for minutes on end even if they talk fast. They get very freaked out because they feel violated and feel like they are being "taped." Another lost art.

Geeklet said...

I live in this very odd space. I think we share it, really.

I'm 22. I send my boyfriend love letters - on honest to goodness stationary! (and boy do I get irritated that most stationary is now CARDS. What happened to LETTER SHEETS?)

People say I'm an anachronism. I love my computer. I love my kindle. But there's something about writing a note or a letter, a card. There's also something about the smell of old books...though new ones are special, too.

My cursive isn't wonderful, by any means. Most of my "capital letters" are standard, but the rest I can manage in cursive. The first time my dearest boyfriend received a letter, he said he had trouble figuring it out...because he hadn't read cursive in so long!

Don't worry, I'm retraining him. :)

My friends' favorite, though, is the sealing wax.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I also took shorthand in high school and still use some of it in meetings. It is a lost art. I wish we would recover it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Geeklet - I love sealing wax. Haven't used it in years. I think I'll start again. Thank you.

JCF said...

You can tell when I'm girl-crushing, when I'm writing love letters (on heavy cotton paper!) in cursive. ;-)

***

I have a lot of affinity for Roman Catholic piety, but one thing I absolutely do NOT get, is the whole "Baby Jesus" thing.

I mean, in a Nativity set, fine.

But the notion of "Praying to Baby Jesus"? Or all the (icky!) EWTN "Toddler Jesus" statuary (like the one where he hands you his widdle heart)? WTF!

I'm sorry, but to *me*, the Second Person WAS an infant once, but he ain't an infant now!

MarkBrunson said...

It's not just an aesthetic thing, to me; the "21st Century" thing is completely dependent on machines, computers, a - surprisingly frail - man-made network.

I can almost believe that the illiteracy of the Dark Ages came because the schools were busy teaching a 5th Century curriculum.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - I think it has to do with an image of Jesus that is understandable to certain minds. He has to be So Very Real that He was - and remains - an infant. That's the only way some people can deal with His power and authority - to infantilize Him.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - good point. Thank you.

Geeklet said...

@Elizabeth, I have a book on medieval women mystics. One of the women, if I remember correctly, would envision the baby Jesus in a cradle, and that she was holding Him. Oh dear, I cannot remember her name, and I have the book right here. I suppose I'll have to reread it!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

When you do, Geeklet, let us know, will you?

Mama Tish said...

Oh, darn. I just wrote a long comment, Elizabeth, and it got rejected because I could not read the little coded worn right at the end. Ironic, as we were talking about cursive writing. I can never read those printed non-robotic words ;)

Tracie Holladay said...

OK, this might be quite obvious to most eyes, and maybe even not worth noting, but my inner sociology student is having a cow.

That image of Jesus feeding the baby pagans is rather racist, if you ask me. I mean, just look at it.

:sigh:

Tracie Holladay said...

Oh, and a quick PS before going to lunch: Calligraphy for the win! :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm so sorry MamaTish. That's happened to me before as well.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Tracie - it's not just the image, it's the whole idea of Pagan Babies. It's all so horribly racist I don't know why Jesus didn't slap us with the obviousness of it before.

jennyk said...

Because I'm a singer, I know of a poem called "St. Ita's Vision" in which she holds and even nurses the Infant Jesus. This song in included in the set Hermit Songs by Samuel Barber. The texts are marginalia taken from medieval manuscripts.

I went to a public school but when I was in fifth grade the teacher got so tired of trying to read my messy writing that she once graded an essay: Content A, handwriting Z! I worked at cleaning it up after that, and now my cursive is very nice.

Tracie H said...

Oh and with regards to: "If there were a font on 'blogspot' in cursive, I would use it all the time, risking as I would, a certain percentage of younger readers."

I think there is now. Go into Design and try changing the text of your title, for example. If you scroll down in the text choices, you'll see Blogger has added SEVERAL fonts, including some script ones.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

jennyk - Fascinating.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Tracie H - Well, I tried. I must have an out of date version of blogger.

Daisy said...

I so want to dig out my calligraphy pen and heavy paper and do something beautiful! Right after I do my email! Thanks Elizabeth, and all commentors, for the "push"!

Elizabeth, I had heard that St. A's had been sold - also the Dominican monastery down the block. I can't remember street names anymore...too long ago and so much has been leveled in highway construction or the Newark riots of the 60's.

The "rescue" of "pagan babies" chills me now, but think back to those times. With the "rescue" hopefully the money went to feed families. Other things done by us colonizing folk were not so "benign". Wholesale murder comes to mind. It continues, along with the witness of people like Oscar Romero, Dorothy Stang, etc.

Caminante said...

Even as a child I thought our alphabet was clunky looking. As a left-handed kid being taught by right-handed teachers, it was worse because they told me the wrong way to hold the paper to get a proper slant on the writing. I was ecstatic to see European handwriting (that is cursive but straight up-and-down and to my eyes, more attractive) in 8th grade and promptly taught myself how to write that way. Of course lo these many years later, my hand writing is just a mess.