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Friday, April 8, 2011

In Which I Ask You to Tell Me About Your Adventures in Penmanship

So I'm writing this play. And I'm hoping you'll help by sharing some of your experiences.

The play is tentatively titled MISS PALMER’S SCHOOL FOR PENMANSHIP AND CIVIL BEHAVIOR, which takes place in 1972. I'm attempting to draw a correlation between the disintegration of our national handwriting, and the erosion of civility.

But mostly, it's about Miss Palmer, an almost extinct species of teacher who remains passionate about "beautiful, useless things" in spite of emerging technologies and America's obsession with pop culture. When the ill-mannered mother of one of her students openly challenges her by offering a course in keyboarding, Miss Palmer goes head to head with the future, and is forced to see the handwriting on the wall.

Here's what I need your help with:

Please leave a comment and tell me about your experience learning cursive handwriting. Was it torture? A pleasure? Was there anything your teacher did or didn't do that contributed to your attitude about learning penmanship? How much time did you spend on it in class? How would you describe your handwriting now? Do you think quality penmanship is important?

Your experiences will help me construct the pro and con attitudes about the importance of penmanship in a technically advanced world. I hope you'll share them with me.



  1. We spent about a week on it in 1st grade. I had been trying to write in cursive before then since I thought, and still do think, that it is very romantic and beautiful. My teacher had a neutral attitude to it, but I was already exited about learning cursive. Sadly, my cursive is barely legible and I was never forced to use it in class and practice like some of my friends. My handwriting naturally runs together though, so sometimes it looks like cursive. I think penmanship is very important especially in the world of type. It says a lot about the person and nothing is better than getting a handwritten letter!

  2. Thanks, BC. So the typed word provides a new context for the written word—as a thing of beauty and personal expression. Is that relevant? Important?

  3. I learned cursive writing in second grade or so, and we spent a lot of time on it. I received actual grades in penmanship for at least a few years, so clearly our school system placed enough importance upon it to grade it, right up there with spelling and arithmetic. I was really good at it. I loved the huge sheets of paper with the aqua colored guidelines. Our pencils were painted red on the outside and were thicker than normal and the lead was kind of soft and smeary. The paper was really cheap with a lot of little slivers of wood embedded in it. Not exactly the Crane stationery I have become such a whore for in my adulthood. I still love the old-fashioned hand-written note on beautiful paper.

  4. I broke my right arm the winter of 1st grade, so I had to write lefty for a while. When my arm healed, I was still leftying and learning cursive, getting top grades. The teacher then realized I was leftating, smacked my head, told me never leftorise because I was supposed to be rightish.
    I never got a good penmanship grade again.

  5. I'll think about this more, but the first thing that comes to mind was that in Cloma Martin's first grade class, I used to be mesmerized by the cursive examples that were posted across the top of the blackboard and the chalk tool she used to draw the guidelines on the board. The tool that held four evenly-spaced pieces of chalk. I remember using it to make beautiful pre-Spirograph patterns on the chalkboard. I also thought Qs and Zs were particularly jolly, but Gs were the most fun to write.

  6. Great comments, you guys. Thanks! (JohnC, I forgot about that chalk holder. It's the perfect icon!)

  7. English is my second language so my experience is different. I actually took to learning cursive with gusto because none of my friends across the ocean knew how to do it :)

  8. My best friend, Bonnie Paul Garrett, had impossibly beautiful handwriting. In the fourth grade, his penmanship was so perfect, kids would give him their lunch money in return for signing their report cards (so that they didn’t have to show the report cards to their parents, who were expected to sign and return a note saying they’d seen the report card).
    My handwriting was ugly – more like that of a typical nine-year-old, I realize now. Our perfectly dreadful homeroom teacher, Mrs. Aldredge (who wore a hair net and had halitosis), said to me once, “Why isn’t your handwriting as nice as Bonnie Paul’s?” I mentioned this to my mother a few days later, and she said something I’ve never forgotten: “It’s not fair to compare people’s abilities. That wasn’t nice of your teacher.”
    Is this a story about cursive handwriting?

  9. Ah, cursive handwriting! [We learned it just a few hundred yards away from one another, Irene, although St Peters apparently did a significantly better job than did Dempsie Brewster School. I wrote you earlier about my father's M.A. student who compared handwriting samples from your school and mine as part of her thesis. Your school won!]

    Anyway, I remember how *excited* I was to finally be able to learn to write in cursive. I was looking forward to it all summer. So imagine my disappointment one the first day of third grade, when Mrs. Jackson told us that we wouldn't be starting to learn cursive until WEDNESDAY.

    Finally the day came, and Mrs. Jackson demonstrated for us the small letter c. Then how to close up the c on the right side: that made an a. Then how to extend that right-side line: that made a d. Put them all together: that spells "cad"! I remember Mrs. Jackson telling us, "It's not a very nice word." But aside from "dad" and "add", she was stuck

    I had no "Bonnie Paul" in my class: my memory is that after we'd mastered the entire alphabet, all our handwriting looked pretty much the same -- so much so that one time, when I noticed that Mrs. Jackson had put some examples of "best handwriting" on the wall, I thought that one of them was mine. But it belonged to Pamela Talton.

    Fast forward to 8th grade. I looked at a paper Pam had written, and I was amazed to discover that her handwriting didn't resemble mine at all anymore. Funny how our genes (?) shape our handwriting.

    Epilogue: my father was very disappointed in my handwriting as I was growing up. He had beautiful handwriting himself -- extremely fluid, with a gorgeous signature. His handwritten notes are a pleasure to read. He told me that when he learned to write in cursive, around 1927, I suppose, the teacher made them spend pages and pages just making circles on the paper *before* they were allowed to compose any letters at all. The point was to get the hand to move with ease.

    Postscript: I write so infrequently now that my handwriting has degenerated far below what it was when I was a teenager. Yet (I just checked) I still possess a slight bump on the upper part of my middle finger that testifies to all those years my hand did hold a pen.

  10. Thanks, everyone, for these wonderful comments. Laura, the Palmer method indeed requires hours and hours of circle making before tackling any letters; the arm and shoulder movement was key. "Rapid movement writing," Mr. Palmer called it. Once students put letters together, they were oddly juxtaposed, like "rz" or "yl" because words were not the point. The holy letter was all. And I remember Pam Talton's handwriting! We were in the same English class in high school. She was the first person I met who visibly swooned over Shakespeare.

  11. I'm a bit tardy but had to comment!

    When I was in elementary school, we learned "D'Nealian" ( I always hated it and wanted to learn how to write the way my parents wrote, in 'fancy' cursive. My mom always commented on what beautiful handwriting my Grandma Katie had, with her flourished capitals and flowing lower case letters. Naturally, because my mom said it was beautiful, I also determined it to be beautiful. So, I did the required classroom penmanship exercises to a 'T' but the rest of my homework exemplified my rebellion against D'Nealian, with unnecessary squiggles and hooks and loops. Over the years, my handwriting evolved from bubble-dotted-i's to long, slanty sans-serif wisps; from script to printing then back again. Can I attribute my handwriting fickleness to D'Nealian? Maybe. Or, more likely, it was my search to creatively express myself that caused me to experiment ad nauseum. I think it has only been in the last 10 years or so that my handwriting has remained relatively consistent, which I would classify as 'scrinting' -- half script, half printing, usually vertical with normal-sized letters and only an occasional flourish. The kind my Grandma Katie hated. C'est la vie.

  12. Thanks, Emily. Not too late at all. You remind me to include D'Nealian in my rant. Grandma Katie had teachers who spent 45 minutes every day on handwriting. Penmanship was associated with character back then. Now teachers spend 10 minutes at most. OUr national handwriting is in severe decline and headed toward extinction. As you say, c'est la vie.

  13. Learned cursive in 3rd grade from a horrible teacher named Mrs. bruce - she was a desk dumper too and I was a messy desk student - but thats another story. Anyway, i had awful penmenshp with cursive the letters just never looked pretty and when I moved on to jr high ( 7th grade) i asked all teachers if I could print and I never wrote in cursive again. the only thing in cursive is my signature and that is only 7 letters, my 1st initial and last name. My mom had beautiful handwriting and I am always a little jealous of beautiful handwriting. In this day and age i think penmanship speaks to the part of us that technology is taking away - the willingness to work hard at something even if it takes along time just for the beauty instead of taking the technological easy way out. PS - congrats on the monologue. -

  14. "i think penmanship speaks to the part of us that technology is taking away - the willingness to work hard at something even if it takes along time just for the beauty instead of taking the technological easy way out." That's it. That's it, exactly. Thanks, Nanci.

  15. First grade report card: straight As, except for a C in penmanship. So instead of playing outside after school, my mother had me in the house practicing my letters. Next report card - straight As. (p.s. My mother also made me take typing instead of chorus my freshman year of high school. I thank her to this day.)

  16. Yesterday I asked my son to sign his field trip form, he couldnt "sign" the way I was taught, in cursive. He printed his name. He is thirteen and in the 7th grade at Deland Middle. I was suprised to learn they had only a week of cursive in the fifth grade and that the school was not teaching cursive anymore. Today I called the school and his information was verified. I find it sad and disturbing. My cursive isnt anything beautiful to look at but it is effective tool in communicating at work on the erase board where we all leave notes throughout the day. I think it's weird the next generation won't know cursive. :(

    1. My son is in 3rd grade, and they are not teaching cursive at his school anymore either. They also do not strive for legible print. I am trying at home but he gets so frustrated. How will they ever learn to sign their names? Computers fail, you have to be able to write! What about when they open checking accounts, sign contracts, ect.?