Penmanship: A lost skill

Joe Weaver - Contributing Columnist

A couple of times a year, my wife receives a letter from a cousin who lives in Barbados. It comes in an envelope with those red and blue lines on the edges and a big airmail stamp on the corner. The handwriting on the envelope is decidedly elderly, with what is left of what once was a grand flourish. The handwriting speaks of strict teaching and learning. The letters are formed as they used to be. A lot of you remember learning how to write in cursive and probably remembering that an “M” had three humps and an “N” had two. The lower case “R” didn’t look like any “R” you had seen anywhere, but once you saw it with alongside other letters in a word, its odd shape made perfect sense.

I don’t know too many people who actually write anymore. There is so much social media and electronic communication that the actual written word is going the way of the dodo. It’s hand-in-hand, writing and handwriting. We used to be taught in school that our handwriting needed to be neat and legible. Most of us tried to get it just like we saw the teacher do, but once our personalities came into play, our handwriting evolved into what it would be for the rest of our lives.

I talked with a few people and I discovered something. A lot of people don’t like their own handwriting. I don’t like mine. Mine is big and loopy and girly, so most of the time I just write in block capital letters when I have to write something. My signature has evolved into a sort of a figure with a bunch of jagged peaks. My wife is indifferent as her handwriting is similar to a lot of women her age. I worked with a woman years ago who had such atrocious handwriting, it was unmistakeable when she signed something or left me a note.

My younger daughter began her education in the Baltimore suburbs. She’s 15 , soon to be 16. When she was in elementary school, cursive handwriting was no longer in the curriculum. She could print beautifully. Shortly after we moved to North Carolina, she started at a new school and was required to sign her name in cursive. Here she was, a 9-year-old girl who had never learned how to write long hand. She practiced until she was legible, but whenever she could, she would print.

Nowadays, the written note seems to be extinct in professional circles. The memo has been replaced by the group e-mail and if you want to reach out to someone, you send a text. I used to keep a note pad in my pocket at one job and the younger people looked at me like I was nuts. When their technology failed, I still had my written notes. The old man wasn’t so backward after all.

Handwriting used to be something to be proud of. I remember the kids in school that had the perfect handwriting. There was a girl in my third-grade class that had handwriting so perfect, the teacher used it as an example as to what the rest of us should do. I don’t know whatever became of Lisa With The Perfect Penmanship, but I imagine it was documented clearly and legibly. Another kid in the class wrote well, but his letters were tall and narrow, kinda like he was. Smart girls seemed to have perfect handwriting. Smart boys wrote like they had both hands tied behind their backs. Lefties wrote differently than righties. A couple of us could write with both hands, but our dominant hand was always neater of course. I broke a finger on my right hand in high school and had to write with my left. Most teachers were understanding, but there was one who kept harping on me to write neater. I told him I had broken a finger and could not write with my correct hand with a splint on it. He asked me to prove it and I showed him the middle finger of my right hand. Well, he asked for it.

My mother is left-handed. In her generation, if you went to Catholic school, you would get scolded or rapped on the knuckles with a ruler if you were a lefty. You either assimilated and learned to write with your right or you got the ruler. If you look at Catholics of a certain generation, they always seem to pause before they use their left hand to write and they always look around to make sure Sister Mary Frances isn’t lurking behind them with that section of yard stick from the hardware store that was cut down for the express purpose of knuckle rapping.

I thought about writing this week’s column on a yellow legal pad with a pencil. I still have a favorite kind of pencil. I like the Dixon Ticonderoga yellow No. 2 pencil. It’s perfect for letter writing with an even, broad and dark line. It writes softly and smoothly and makes any written task a pleasure. I try to keep a box of them around just in case I need one.

This week, I fired up the laptop as I do each week and typed this column. The text is clear and concise and easy to read. I use a basic font at a reasonable size. It’s not very stylish, but it does the job.

I’ll click and save the column and email it to the editor as I do every week. He has a hard enough time editing and fixing my typewritten mistakes. I like him too much to make him decipher my handwriting.

That, folks, would be cruel.

Contributing columnist and Baltimore native Joe Weaver is a husband, father, pawnbroker and gun collector. From his home in New Bern, he writes on the lighter side of family life.

Joe Weaver

Contributing Columnist

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