Monday, March 24, 2014

A Stroke and A Flourish

I sat in the Kindergarten Parents’ Meeting on Literacy Night at my daughter’s public elementary school listening to the “Kindergarten Teaching Team” explain the newest “Language Arts Curriculum.” Words and phrases flew out of their mouths, flitted like hummingbirds around the room, hovered before me for but a moment while I tried to translate them, and then darted away to be replaced by the next buzz words.  A PowerPoint presentation, illustrated with numerous graphs, indicated that “Word Recognition” had replaced spelling. “Context clues” substituted for vocabulary lessons. There was talk of “Journaling” and “Narrative Construction.” Did I mention that this was a meeting for kindergarten?
Did I walk into the right presentation? These children are only 5 years old, I thought.  And their handwriting still needs serious practice. Wait a minute – during the entire presentation about reading and writing (pardon my gaff – I meant language arts) the teaching team never once mentioned handwriting.
“Does anyone have any questions?” an enthusiastic, fresh-out-of-school team member asked. I glanced around at faces wearing either stunned, confused, or bored expressions.
“I do,” I ventured, raising my hand (being in school takes you right back, doesn’t it?). “I didn’t hear anyone mention anything about handwriting. When will they be practicing their printing?”
The young teacher looked to the assemblage of seasoned team members standing at her side. “We no longer teach handwriting in the curriculum,” one stated. “And handwriting isn’t graded.”
“What?” I spluttered. “Why?... How are they supposed to learn how to write neatly if they aren’t practicing, and how will they know they are expected to write legibly, if they aren’t graded on it?”
“We have to cover what they’ll need to learn for the standardized tests. There’s not enough time for everything, so, unfortunately, handwriting had to go. But you can certainly work on it at home,” one of the teachers explained.
“Handwriting’s not important anymore,” a woman next to me grunted. “Kids type everything; all I use to write is a computer, and I keep notes on my phone. I don’t think I even own a pen anymore.”
Others around me nodded their agreement. My heart sank into my feet, and I sat there too shocked and saddened to respond.
Now I must pause to say that I have the utmost respect for teachers. The patience they have for not only dealing with a room packed with children, but with parents, administrators, and all the continuing education requirements, coupled with constant “improvements” to curriculum, and tight budgets merits a gold medal – a real gold one.  And I realize that these teachers were adhering to the curriculum they were expected to teach - one chosen by administrators focused on test scores and how the school district measures up against others.  But handwriting  - gone? So, despite the facts that I work full-time, and the evenings are filled with cooking supper, eating, homework, bath time, a bedtime story, and who can predict what else, I tried to squeeze-in printing practice and to make sure that anything printed sloppily on homework sheets was erased and re-written.
When the Literacy Night for Second Grade was held, I asked about learning cursive. “We’ll work on that ‘some,’ but we’ll be sending home guides for you to practice at home.” 
“Gee, thanks. Is the school district going to pay me to teach at home what should be included in the curriculum?” I didn’t say it, but I wanted to.
My daughter is in 4th Grade now. Her printing is neat sometimes but messy when she hurries. Her cursive is pretty – when she uses it, because she complains that she can’t write very fast that way. “That’s because you don’t use it enough to gain speed,” I reply. “When I was your age, everything was required to be written in cursive.  After we were taught it, we were expected to use it, unless printing was specified for a form.”
“That’s not the way it is at my school,” my daughter answered. “We don’t have to use cursive, and we don’t get anything marked off for not writing neatly.”
“I know,” I agreed, despondently, pining for days gone by. I recently read that on the 2006 SAT exam, only 15 percent of the students wrote their essay answers in cursive.  Printing seems to have replaced cursive, and typing has replaced most of even that. But oh, the beautiful handwriting of the past! Flourishes! How I love those!
 Though a number of cultures developed handwriting styles featuring connected letters and flourishes, the Romans first developed a script handwriting style similar to what we would recognize. Versions dating back to at least the 5th century A.D. featured words containing lowercase letters connected together. Monasteries preserved and perfected handwriting, with monks tasked with copying religious and classical texts. Charlemagne, 1st Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (reign: December 25, 800–January 28, 814), assigned an English monk in the late 8th century to create a standardized style from the various regional styles in his realm. The Carolingian miniscule was born, designed to be legible, with punctuation and separation between words containing lowercase letters. During the Middle Ages (5th-15th centuries A.D.), the cost of parchment escalated with the demand for books, so a denser style of writing evolved in Europe.  In the mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1395–1468) utilized this Gothic style as the first typeface for his printing press.
Meanwhile, elegant handwriting became synonymous with the educated, higher classes. How you wrote represented who you were. Penmanship schools opened in the 1700s to train master scribes. The word “cursive” was coined during this period from the 18th century Italian word “corsivo” which was derived from the Medieval Latin word “cursivus” which means “running.” During both the colonial period and the early days of the United States, professional penmen copied documents such as the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution (1787) in cursive. Various professions adopted certain styles as representative of their occupations, and men and women developed flourishes associated with their sex. Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-1864), an abolitionist and bookkeeper, created a distinctly American style of cursive - the Spencerian method- which was taught in school. Businesses embraced the Spencerian script, and you can see an example of it in the original Coca-Cola logo.
By 1900 in America, Austin Norman Palmer’s (1860-1927) method of loopy characters replaced the Spencerian style. Charles Zaner (1864-1918) and Elmer Bloser (1865-1929) created a cursive style utilized in children’s textbooks during the 20th century. And of course, everyone adds their own personal style to whichever method of cursive they have been taught. That’s what makes our individual handwriting unique. Our handwriting can even be analyzed to assess our personalities.  In 1977, National Handwriting Day was established to celebrate the power of handwriting. This day falls each year on January 23rd. The significance of that date?  It’s the birthday of John Hancock (1737-1793), who famously penned his signature on the Declaration of Independence in script large enough so that everyone could read it, damn the consequences!
I can picture John Hancock dipping his quill in the inkwell and signing his name. I can imagine the sound of his pen scratching on the paper. You know the sound Harry’s quill made when he wrote in Tom Riddle’s diary (which really was He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s diary but I’m brave so I’ll name him anyway – Lord Voldemort) in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)? I love that sound. But the reality is that dipping quills in ink wells is tedious and much messier than what we see transpire at Hogwarts. Of course, instead of blotters and stained fingers, witches and wizards do have magic.
Though I must say,  I’ve always found fountain pens – the closest practical thing to a quill that we Muggles can possess - to hold an air of magic. Back when I held my first job as a paralegal at law firm, a pricey Montblanc Meisterst├╝ck fountain pen was a must-have for the attorneys. To acquire one indicated the young associates had become established in their chosen profession. I once asked an associate if I could borrow his for a moment, and he actually said, “No. I don’t lend my pen. Not to anyone. Not even for a moment. Not even if I’m standing right here.”
I’ve never been that possessive of a pen, but I am particular about what kind I use. I like the grip to feel just right. And I don’t like ink that smears. My current favorite is the B2P gel ink pen made by Pilot from recycled water bottles. With it, I record on paper the drama and particulars of managing my life: grocery lists, errands, flashes of brilliance for my latest writing project, post cards, greeting cards, and thank you notes.  I think most everyone still appreciates the thought and effort you make when you record words on paper and send them via the U.S. Postal Service. How unexpectedly exciting it is to receive something hand-addressed, just to you, that isn’t a bill or junk mail! And, despite blogs and Facebook, girls still buy diaries in book form that lock with keys to record on paper the musings of their minds and the longing of their hearts. (I know, because my daughter has one.) Yes, texts, direct messages, and emails are quicker for communicating now, but in this instantaneous world, folks still wait minutes for tea bags to steep, spend nine months growing babies, pursue dreams for years, and mark lifetimes loving those held dear.
I type for work all day long. And then, I type personal things, such as this blog. But when I write by hand, I am conscious of the fact that my handwriting represents me on paper – not as a mark of my class, education level, or profession, as in days past, but as a sign that I care enough about others and about myself to write neatly and legibly. That’s why I insist that my daughter endeavor to master her handwriting skills. And I hope there will always be pens and paper - and people who cherish them with each stroke and flourish.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton