I was driving my mom downtown the other day. She needs a chauffeur since her fall at Thanksgiving necessitated the donning of a huge neck brace that makes her move like a robot.
She was trapped with me in the car, so of course I introduced a topic I knew would get her goat start an interesting conversation.
“I showed Colin what someone had written in a Christmas card the other day and he couldn’t read it,” I said.
“What?” She tried to turn her whole upper body to face me. I don’t think it’s necessary to maintain polite eye contact with a driver, but I appreciated the effort.
…domo arigato, Mr. Roboto…
“They don’t use cursive in school anymore, and he’s not all that good at reading it.”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” she said. “Such a shame.”
I remember a teacher I had in eighth grade who would agree. Mrs. Wolfe had a tight, curly perm and stern look. Penmanship was part of the curriculum. During spelling tests she would monitor the class for proper penmanship posture: back straight against the chair. Both hands on the desk. Both feet on the floor. During the test she would call out when she saw someone break one of her posture rules.
“Hands,” she’d say, or “feet,” and make a mark on the chalkboard.
There was supposed to be a prize for the class that could get through a spelling test with no marks on the board. We never found out what that prize was. Someone always screwed up.
Urban legend also had it Mrs. Wolfe used to make students say “Good morning sunshine,” enthusiastically to her bright yellow chair. That was until district officials were said to have come in and told Ms. Wolfe that respect was something a chair, even a bright yellow chair, had likely not earned.
So it’s possible the perm was a little too tight.
I never mastered cursive. I think I received a markdown on one or two high school papers for writing in block letters, which is about the time I started typing my assignments. We’d all taken keyboarding classes with IBM Selectrics, each as big as a ship anchor. That keyboarding had to be good for something, after all.
Even though I knew what my mom was implying about the demise of cursive handwriting and agreed with her to some degree, I still had to goad her. Because that’s my thing.
“Why would that be a shame?”
“Because cursive is an important skill to have,” she said.
“Was an important skill to have,” I said. “So was the ability to churn butter, once.” I’m so clever.
“It’s not the same thing. Learning cursive is an important skill.” Mom said.
She went on to describe an episode of The Twilight Zone or some other show she’d seen where someone had retained the ability to do math in his head, when everyone else used calculators. Then the authorities were after him, because the math thing was now supposed to be verboten in this dystopian setting.
“Well, the ability to read cursive isn’t the same the ability to do basic math in your head,” I said. “You build on math skills to do other things.”
I don’t know what other things exactly. I guess counting change or figuring out a tip at a restaurant, or estimating how much mulch you’ll need deposited in your driveway without overshooting it, thereby ending up with enough to spread in the neighbor’s garden and the yard next to hers and then filling a couple of garbage bags and storing them by the side of the garage until stuff starts growing out of the bags and you toss them over the back fence.
Not that I’d ever had a problem with that, per se.
See, that’s where this kind of things leads me. I start out poking my mom into an argument, and I end up defending math. I should know better.
And I’m a fine one to argue. I’m the one who learned calligraphy in ninth grade and ended up being the go-to person for making table place cards, prep-squad posters and signs for parade floats that made everyone squint.
I totally appreciate the fine art of penmanship, and have always been in awe of the fact that everyone up to my parents’ generation has the exact same, precisely angled, looped and whorled method of written communication. My grandma got to a point where she couldn’t remember my name anymore, but she could still write perfectly.
I still write in block letters.
“Look, schools are cutting things like PE and art and music, these days. I don’t suppose there’s much call except nostalgia for holding onto an outdated skill like cursive,” I said. “It’s not going to be on any standardized test or anything.”
But this is not an argument anyone is going to win any time soon with my mom.
“Cursive is just an important skill,” she said.
“To do what?” I said, “read Christmas cards from grandparents?”
“Something like that. Yes.”
If you happen to be glad you could read this whole thing without squinting, the favor of a vote would be most appreciated. Thank you.
Photo by: Charles Kenny