Wednesday, November 19, 2003

To Put Pen to Paper…the death of penmanship.

Not long ago while sitting in my favorite coffee house, I was approached by a young woman who asked to see what I was writing. Not knowing her coupled with the fact that it was a personal letter, I was a bit hesitant until she said that she wanted to see the writing, or what I would have called the penmanship. Staring at the paper and the black scratching upon it as though it were some exotic piece of scrimshaw – I honestly do not believe she was reading the letter – she turned to me and asked if I had taken some special course in order to write as I do. The word she used was calligraphy.

Setting aside false modesty, I have always had a nice "hand" or "pen". As a child I always received an "A" in penmanship. Yes, our handwriting was graded. More importantly, it was also an indicator of an individual's character. I have often jokingly remarked that the nuns who educated me saw sloppy handwriting as symptoms of moral degeneracy and a precursor to juvenile delinquency and were to be addressed with "extreme prejudice" – or a ruler to the knuckles at the very least.

I disabused the young woman of the notion that this was calligraphy. This was simply how I wrote. She seemed incredulous that this was not somehow special. Calligraphy is a highly stylized and elegant form of handwriting used for artistic endeavors – this (the handwriting in my letter) was standard among children raised in the Catholic school system of my generation and earlier. The standard appears to have died out a generation before in the public schools, but I have no evidence to substantiate my claim.

The system used was something called the "Palmer Method" named after Austin Palmer a "graphologist" in the early 20th century who sought a way for students to complete with the encroachment of the typewriter. Eschewing the florid swirls of the Victorian and the idiosyncratic styles of the Eighteenth century, Palmer expounded a clean, uniform lettering legible to everyone. This, along with the insistence of drills, appealed to educators of the day.

Boys, as a general rule, suffered disproportionately, lacking as they do in most cases the necessary fine motor skills to achieve the mastery of ink and pen. There were, of course, no allowances made for left-handers with this particular pedagogical method. They were the recipients of numerous cracks across the knuckles until they relented and wrote with their right hand. There was a pragmatic rationale for this cruelty – lefties tended to drag their palm through the wet ink and smear what they had written. Besides, in 1959, conformity was considered a good thing. And while the ballpoint pen had been recently introduced, the nuns disparagingly dismissed them as "messy pencils".

The young woman and I agreed to meet again and I would bring my "real" pen set. Although this boxed set contains the necessary implements for calligraphy, the nibs, and bottles of ink would have been remarkably ordinary to most first graders fifty years ago. (Try to imagine handing out bottles of indelible black ink to six year olds today!)

Handing her the pen after I had assembled it (she didn't know how), I encouraged her to try her "hand" at it. It was a disaster. Her using too much ink, smearing, and an utter lack of the skills required, opened my eyes to how incredibly difficult a task it was to teach someone to write in this method. Certainly those with artistic gifts and training would probably fare well in their initial efforts but for most it is fraught with the drudgery of long hours of practice. My appreciation of the good sisters was reaffirmed.

I suppose it is bit anachronistic to lament the passing of good penmanship. There is hardly a justification for it. We have computers and cell phones. As a society we are moving more and more to the oral and the telegraphic. It's more than a little difficult to imagine a contemporary teenager praising the object of his affections for her graceful cursive. Today's elementary school teachers would probably be puzzled by the emphasis placed on good handwriting and properly appalled at the barbaric tactics employed to achieve excellence in the discipline.

Still, the passing of any skill, craft or art is bound to invoke nostalgia. When I receive a letter (this a much less frequent occurrence with the advent of e-mail) and it from one my contemporaries, it is like recognizing an old friend before you can say hello; Bob's peculiar "m's" which are virtually indistinguishable from his "w's" and Kent's tight loops and straight-backed script have become as familiar to me as their hair color (which is changing in most of our cases) and the sound of their voices and as unique as a fingerprint. No e-mail could ever be that familiar.


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