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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Cursive Curse

IT WAS A BIRTHDAY GREETING for my wife, many years ago. A gift, lavishly wrapped (for me, the introduction of scotch tape into the wrapping process makes it lavish), with a handwritten letter detailing my adoration. “I love the present!” she cried, tearing the paper off the whatever-it-was. “And a letter!” She peered hopefully at the page, then lowered it. “But I can’t read it.”

The author with his Smith-Corona, c. 1975
Not many can make sense of my scrawl, which isn’t surprising: I never learned to write. In other respects, I was a precocious little bastard, a fluent enough reader by kindergarten that I was invited to read to the other kids at the end of the day while the teacher cleaned up. In first grade, when we were split into learning-to-read groups, I was given one of them to instruct. Needless to say, my classmates despised me.

We are speaking of a time in the dim, pre-computer past, when a number-two pencil was a needed companion and the taking of classroom notes required not only a written approximation of the teacher’s talk but also a sequence of margin-busting doodles, visiting ever-greater horrors upon the cruelly rendered teacher as that talk droned on and on.

During the opening weeks of second grade, it was decided to skip me to third. Friendless as I was, I hoped for a fresh chance with these fresh faces – but I was an interloper. In the long run, I was ruined both socially and academically, and it started with penmanship.

We’d been taught to print, which seemed to me satisfying enough – printing looked like letters in a book. Cursive – script, as we termed it – looked like code, and it was taught during the weeks my grade-skip eliminated. The walls of my third-grade classroom were ringed with charts displaying cursive letters, uppercase and lower, wandering the room like alphabetic pilgrims. “Just copy them,” my teacher, the voluptuous Miss Lewis, advised.

Ah, Miss Lewis. She was a community-theater actress about to perform in “Little Mary Sunshine,” and she asked me to stay with her during recess period and cue her on her lines. She complimented me lavishly on my nascent acting skills, and somewhere in my six-year-old loins I conceived a terrific lust for this lady. But she soon became the less exotic-sounding Mrs. Fleck, and I understood that this meant she was lost to me.

In fourth grade, the unyielding Mr. Harriman (who looked like the father on TV’s “Dennis the Menace”) divided the class into groups labeled “pencil” and “pen,” the latter made up of those who had achieved a beautiful cursive hand, with wide, looping o’s and f’s of well-proportioned complexity.

Knowing that I was doomed to remain in the “pencil” group for the rest of my life, I talked my parents into getting me a typewriter, a clunky, manual Smith-Corona that stayed with me for many years. And I painstakingly taught myself to type. Incorrectly. As with most beginners, stabbed the letters with two index fingers, soon achieving dexterity enough to add two more fingers and a shift-key thumb. I still type that way, although I can boast that those third fingers get into the mix when thoughts flow fast.

What papers I handed in (and I hated writing them, so I handed in few) were thus typewritten, to the scorn of Mr. Harriman and his by-the-book cronies, who insisted that cursive writing was a life’s necessity and perhaps a form of religious salvation.

It wasn’t until eighth grade that we were taught to type. It was seen as a business-world necessity, at least for the girls, of whom no greater career could be imagined than executive secretary. But this also was a time of cross-pollination. Girls took shop. I took typing. I sought legitimacy. And perhaps a new friend.

Mrs. Dale had been teaching this for so many years that she had it routined to a fare-thee-well. She would teach us what’s laughingly called “touch” typing – as opposed to what? Blowing on the keys? She arrayed us across a chessboard of typing tables and ordered us not to touch the keys. Because we were to learn to anchor our hands on the keyboard so that our fingers rested naturally on certain keys. Then the drills began. Bizarre sequences of adjacent letters: fgfgfg, hjhjhj, to give us mastery of the home row before we were sent to the outfield.

I tried it. It slowed me the hell down. So I sat in the back of the room and faked it until it came time for the final exam. You had to type 40 words per minute to pass. This I did easily. “But you did it wrong!” Mrs. Dale exclaimed. “You’re just – you’re just hitting keys!” I explained that I’d already been typing for a few years, and saw no need to change my approach. She reasoned that she couldn’t fail me, as I’d satisfied the only stated requirement. But she felt duty-bound to punish me for my transgression, and gave me a C. By this time, the age of twelve, I’d become familiar with the bureaucratic logic of grown-ups, but it still was a disappointment. And it didn’t help me win friends – what if my approach were contagious?

I worked for many years on that portable manual typewriter, although electric typewriters beckoned with their speed and tactile submission. They were too expensive to consider. I moved to Schenectady in 1980 to work for a classical-music radio station, which shared space with a TV facility – and every desk was topped with a sleek, self-correcting IBM Selectric II. It was so fast, so responsive that it seemed to anticipate your keystroke (take that, predictive text!) and whirl its little typeface ball into position to kiss the carbon ribbon and leave a beautiful letter on the page. Wrong letter? Wrong sentence? Send the cursor backward with the correction key and that carbon impression literally was lifted away.

“I can get you one of those.” One of my listeners, a fan whose tastes ran from Mahler to Zappa, supported himself with jobs in a burglar-alarm dispatching center and a downtown Albany liquor store. “My boss at the store has a bunch of Selectrics on a shelf in the back.” I paid a nominal fee and brought home this wondrous machine just in time to hear a news segment describing a rash of Selectric thefts plaguing office buildings. Because each keystrike was a unique impression on the ribbon, I was able to yank the spent portion from its plastic shell and read enough of what had been previously written to discover the very desk at the State Office complex from which the machine had been swiped. I rationalized my retention of this machine by thinking of all the people I was sparing the agony of my handwriting – and eventually I went legit, buying a discounted Selectric from a printing shop that my wife used to work for. That all went away, or course, by 1986, when I got my first computer – but that’s another story.

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