by Kitty Burns Florey
I wrote a book about handwriting because I was concerned about the fact that handwriting is not being adequately taught in many schools. And as I researched the topic, and spoke to a lot of educators, what struck me was the amount of pressure teachers are under in the 21st century.
It’s tempting to be nostalgic about the days when students were drilled in the Palmer Method and most of them graduated from high school writing a legible script. But today’s classroom is immensely more complicated; teachers have to cope not only with endless testing but with a much wider range of material to cover. And along with everything else, they have to teach computer skills! The more research I did, the less wedded I became to the idea (always a dubious one, anyway) that because things were done a certain way back in the good old days, they should be done that way now.
Students need to learn typing – they even probably need to call it “keyboarding.” Hardly a one of them will escape a future in which they earn their livings by sitting at a computer. I write my own books directly on the keyboard, use computer programs for editing, keep on top of a substantial email correspondence, pay bills online – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But I think it’s too soon to declare legible penmanship a lost art. Maybe the problem lies in calling it an art rather than a simple necessity like knowing how to add and subtract. Hardly a day goes by when the average person doesn’t have to write something on paper. We take notes at meetings, we make lists, we address an envelope, we send a thank-you letter, we keep diaries. A radio talk show host who interviewed me this morning had jotted down some things he wanted to discuss but confessed he couldn’t read it back so had to wing it. In more extreme (but not entirely far-fetched) scenarios, the computer crashes, the power goes out, we start to get shooting pains in our wrists….
We need to use our handwriting, just as most of us need to cook dinner every night. Why not try to do it well? The “slow food” movement is gaining momentum. Why not “slow writing”? Is it so hard to write legibly?
I believe that devising a readable, even beautiful script for ourselves isn’t really very difficult, nor must it resemble the dear old Palmer Method, with its curlicues and flourishes. In the course of writing Script and Scribble, I became smitten with a variation of the 16th-century script known as Italic – a partly printed, partly cursive style that’s famous for its elegance, legibility, and speed. (And if it’s taught in schools, kids don’t have to learn printing in first grade and make the transition to cursive a year or two later: it’s all one script.) Like most people’s, my handwriting had deteriorated through lack of use, but in a week or so of casual practice, I reformed it completely.
I’ve managed to retain what I learned by using my new Italic as often as I can. Even making a grocery list presents an opportunity, not because it matters that “onions, bread, coffee” be beautifully written, but because it keeps me in practice for times when good handwriting is important – like the note of sympathy I had to write a few days ago. It takes a little longer, but – once you’ve mastered it – not much. We’re a nation of printers, a nation of apologizers for our penmanship, but we don’t have to be. It’s just not that big a deal to write well!
But kids are another story. I understand the time pressures teachers face, and I know that follow-up and reinforcement are not easy to build into the school day. Compared to other items in the curriculum, handwriting can seem pretty trivial – and there’s no standardized test to evaluate it. Still, I can imagine an ideal classroom, one in which the students write a fluent Italic script from first grade onward, they’re encouraged to use it daily for short periods, and what they write is pleasing to them, a source of pride, a skill that will serve them well for as long as they need it.
Who knows what the years ahead have in store for any of us? Home computers drain more energy than almost any other usage, and it’s increasing. Repetitive stress injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome aren’t going away. Most college students still take notes with pen and notebook. The pleasure of curling up with a diary seems to be an enduring one. Love letters will never stop being written, by hand, on paper, and sealed with a kiss.
Penmanship isn’t dead. It’s not feeling great, it’s struggling to breathe, it’s limping along. But we can keep it alive. And we should.
KITTY BURNS FLOREY is the author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. A veteran copy editor, she has also written nine novels and many short stories and essays. She lives in Connecticut. Her web address is www.kittyburnsflorey.com/