Curses! The devolving world of cursive

December 19, 2013 — Leave a comment

One of my professional duties is the administration of student evaluations of our faculty. Each semester I prepare packets containing a standardized evaluation forms (you know, those fun little “bubbles” you fill in with a No. 2 pencil – whee!) and comment sheets on which students can address matters that may not be covered on the standardized questionnaire. I’ve been performing this duty for a number of years, but last week when the evals came back in was the first time it really struck me:

          Very, very few of the written comments are in cursive. 

Granted, one factor may be the awkwardness of penning anything with a golf pencil. But I’m guessing this trend speaks more to the technological developments that have rendered cursive fairly obsolete. Now, I’m not one to bandy about wailing over its demise, nor will I take up a placard and picket to maintain it in elementary curricula. Nevertheless, I admit feeling a little wistful that elegant penmanship seems to have become the domain of the few.

grandpa envelope

Letter I received from Grandpa

I remember wanting to learn to write cursive before it was part of classroom instruction. It was something big people did, and I was all about emulating whatever they did. It was also what one particular big person did in grand style: it is my understanding that my dad’s dad served as an official recorder for his community, whose entries in ledgers and on legal documents can probably still be viewed in the local archives. To be able to write like Grandpa would have been tantamount to arriving.

Then there was my dad’s fancy Speedball calligraphy book that also captured my imagination. I wanted him to teach me how to do that jazzy stuff, but before he’d even begin teaching me, he insisted I practice, practice, practice the rudiments.

lkd penmanship

Third grade assignment – can’t figure out if it was for spelling, vocabulary or penmanship – but no matter: it earned me a robin sticker!

So practice I did, at the dining table, for what seemed like hours. Loop after loop, above the line, below the line, to the left, and then to the right, followed by angled lines and then smooth, slanted ovals. I fully intended to get this handwriting thing down.

Then in fourth grade, Mrs. Carver upped the ante.

We were instructed to use fountain pens to practice our penmanship. She said that a ball point was incapable of producing excellent and beautiful writing. Next thing I knew, my parents and I were off shopping for a fountain pen, in compliance with the new regulation. I think we wound up getting a little Scripto number, complete with refill cartridges, for a grand total of about one dollar (hey, my weekly allowance back then was only about 25 cents!). But I had to agree with Mrs. Carver: cursive writing absolutely flowed using a fountain pen.

You might think that all of this would have put me in hog heaven, but not so. Instead, I spent the year consumed by frustration due to the utter futility of all my efforts to approach the dizzying heights of the Colossus of Cursive Coolness: MarianneTanaka.

Miss Tanaka consistently produced the most beautiful writing I’d ever seen from a kid. Her ovals and loops were p-e-r-f-e-c-t. I mean, the people that manufactured the poster board alphabet cards that lined the top of the blackboard (standard issue in every classroom I was ever in) should have used her handwriting as their pattern!

I convinced myself her mad skills were a result of daddy splurging on daughter’s very fancy Parker pen — a pen as gorgeous as the words that daily filled her sheet of paper. But deep down, I believe I knew that even if we traded pens, her handwriting would still be drool worthy. So I decided to slow down, hoping that if I just focused harder, I might be able to replicate her output. But to no avail. ‘Twas a sad fact, but true: I fell somewhere in the middle of the bell curve, and Miss Tanaka was a couple of standard deviations beyond.

I am unable to report that my take-away from this experience had anything to do with the folly of comparing myself with others or learning to accept my own strengths and weaknesses gracefully. No, I had seen the mountain top and was determined to get there somehow. Whether it was competition or inspiration, I stuck by the practice, practice, practice motto until I had mastery of this thing called cursive.

And eventually it paid off. By the time I was a young adult, I had my own Speedball calligraphy handbook, along with a set of nibs and some India ink, with which I produced some pretty nice invitations, programs, place cards, etc. — even got hired to pen a set of wedding invitations for a small wedding.

Then, a couple decades later, along came our family’s first PC — a total game-changer. Now with the click of a mouse, I can go from a 4-point to a 72-point font, from Roman to Gothic, from sans serif to script! And I can still produce place cards, invitations, and programs — without the messy ink bottles, nibs to wash, or stained finger tips. And lo and behold, I thoroughly enjoy expressing myself utilizing desktop publishing software.

So now I’m conflicted. I still have the Speedball set, and I’m not quite ready to give away just yet, even though it’s about as useful to me these days as a rotary phone or an 8-track tape player. I suppose it’s sentimental attachment — sorta like one might have to a first bike, or perhaps a very first pair of running shoes — as a symbol of one’s earliest stages of mastering a thing.

Come to think of it, I only threw out those college track shoes just a couple years ago…

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