My 13-year-old grandson cannot read cursive. I didn’t know this until about a month ago. I was showing him something in my journal, and he couldn’t make out a word. “They don’t teach cursive anymore,” he informed me.
I was flabbergasted.
When did schools stop teaching handwriting? And shouldn’t I have known about this? I know ridiculous things. I know that chickens make more than 200 sounds to communicate. I know that years ago Angela Lansbury was almost cast as Mary Poppins in the Broadway play. I know that 11 hippos were found dead in Zimbabwe a couple weeks ago. But, here, in my own back yard, cursive is in the boneyard and I’m just finding out? How did something this monumental get past me?
I googled “cursive writing” and, sure enough, up popped dozens of old and new articles about handwriting disappearing from school curriculums across the country. I read newspapers. I watch the news. Every day, for too much of the day, I am online. How did I miss all these stories?
Most times, when something that always was isn’t anymore, I sigh and move on. I don’t miss the old days, not things anyway. I wouldn’t give up my iMac for an Olivetti, swap my smartphone for a princess phone, go back to mimeograph machines and microfiche and three networks on a black-and-white TV.
But the banishment of handwriting -- of something that, like language and dialect, is part of a person’s identity -- got me thinking about the old days, not exactly longing for them, but remembering them.
I learned to write in first grade at St. Joseph’s in Somerville. I was 5 1/2 and was taught the Palmer method by my teacher, Sister Patricia Ann. The letters were sweeping and loopy and, I thought, beautiful. And even more beautiful when connected, when making words. I loved making words.
And then in February of second grade, my parents bought a house in Randolph and we moved. At my new school, the Rinehart method of handwriting, not the Palmer, was taught. Rinehart letters were less frilly. More tailored. The upper case “F” was different. And the lower case “r.”
I didn’t mind. I loved these letters, too.
We practiced every morning, in pencil at first, on gritty yellow lined paper, then with a ball point pen on smooth lined white paper. Once every marking period, we would be given a clean sheet of white paper and instructed to copy letters and words our teacher had written on the board. Our papers would then be collected and sent somewhere to be evaluated. If, as a class, we all excelled, Miss Nagel would receive in the mail an adhesive-backed gold star to stick on a certificate that said “Rinehart,” which she taped to the door of our classroom. This gold star was an honor, a sign to everyone who walked into our classroom that we were all hard-working students.
In seventh grade I went back to Catholic school and back to the Palmer method, writing with a pen dipped in ink. We practiced movements, making ovals all the same size without lifting the pen from the paper, making an up and down stroke that had to slant just so. Over and over again until we could write without smudging the ink. There were no gold medals for excellence there. Just practice until you excelled.
I never did. My handwriting was and is a mix of flourish and failure. It’s not pretty. It’s hard to read. But it’s all mine. It doesn’t look like my father’s, whose writing was big and bold, or my friend Janet Butler’s, whose fat-looped L’s and P’s I tried to copy. Or Kathy Patton’s, whose vowels and consonants are pure art.
Now children are taught to print. It makes sense. Print is neater and easier to read, easier to learn, handwriting an art we don’t need anymore.
Except that it is not just an art. It’s part of who we are. It’s distinctive, like the way we walk, talk, smile. It’s a bridge, too, not just to old journals and letters, and not just to our personal pasts, but to the bigger past.
Cursive is a bridge to history.Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.