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Write from your heart, and by hand

Betty Firth
Posted 11/20/23

This week we might pay more attention to what we’re grateful for. I have an odd one. I’m grateful that I was was taught cursive writing in elementary school by teachers who insisted on …

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Write from your heart, and by hand


This week we might pay more attention to what we’re grateful for. I have an odd one. I’m grateful that I was was taught cursive writing in elementary school by teachers who insisted on excellence and gave us time and the tools to practice. I believe we started learning cursive writing in third grade, but only with pencils. We were not allowed to use pens until fourth grade, and then only fountain pens. Those early ballpoint pens were unreliable, often leaking, smearing, and blopping ink blots, and we were not even allowed to have them in the classroom.
Calligraphy captured my attention in the sixth grade. I was given some traditional calligraphy pens with multiple, changeable points and a book showing many kinds of lettering along with demonstrations of how to correctly form various fonts like Old English, Hobo, or Brush Script. Years later calligraphy sets with refillable fountain pens became available, and later yet, disposable fountain pens with calligraphic points in multiple colors. When I once used a fountain pen to write a check for groceries, the checker asked, “What in the world is that?” She had apparently never seen a fountain pen, and I felt sad for her as well as feeling every one of my years.
Not too long ago, I heard that schools were no longer teaching cursive handwriting, which shocked me. What would that be like to grow into adulthood not knowing how to write cursively? I remembered receiving letters from my father during summer camp after fourth grade. He had very spiky handwriting which I could not decipher, and I cried in frustration and loneliness, for I was very homesick. Not being able read his message made the separation more painful. I did let mom know, and my dad’s next letter came printed in capital letters, which is the way he communicated with me and others the rest of his life. He told me that his colleagues at work were grateful for the improvement. Would these younger generations feel that frustration anytime they were confronted with cursive writing? Would they never be able to decode family letters from earlier times? It would seem like pieces of history would be unavailable to them.
I assumed that curriculum deciders reasoned that people would be communicating mostly through computers, keyboards, and texting, so why bother teaching cursive. They overlooked that writing in your own, unique hand is so much more than just putting words on paper. Using pens or pencils and paper is a very different kinesthetic experience as you feel the drag of the pen on the paper as the flowing of the ink fills up the page with your personalized graphic design. The shape of your letters, the slant of your lines, the expressive tilt of your ascenders and descenders reveal a lot about your mood as well as your feelings about the subject at hand.
It was not realized that writing engages different brain circuits than typing, with multiple tactile experiences involving the small and large muscles of fingers, hands, arms, and eyes. Research has shown that writing improves memory and academic performance, and that pre-literate children learn and retain letters more quickly through writing them. During presentations I take notes constantly that I may never look at just to assist my memory.
One day in a restaurant, I was writing in my journal, and as an older woman passed my booth, she commented on my lovely handwriting. I guess that’s how unusual it is, that a passing stranger would notice and comment. It makes me want to offer classes in penmanship and calligraphy to those who missed out. At its most excellent, it’s an art form, embellishing historic documents and revered in many cultures. Are young people even using cursive to write their signatures, or are they printing? Even hastily written, our signature stood for who we were, our declaration and proof that we are the person we say we are, with dramatic flourishes or indecipherable scribbles. Who could doubt the passion and commitment of John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence?
I do like typing when I want to get a lot of ideas down quickly, with the added benefit of easy editing, but I still like to write with pen and paper, and the choice of each is important. I like to use paper that is smooth and pens that flow evenly, allowing me to write quickly and precisely. Unfortunately, the calligraphic pens and most fountain pens slow my writing down, so I seldom use them these days except on greeting cards, especially at Christmas, but there is still satisfaction in knowing that I can. Sometimes I even add a wax seal.
A friend of mine from Minneapolis and I wanted to keep in touch, and we decided to do that with handwritten letters. We have done that for many years, although our letters weren’t very frequent. Seeing her handwriting in the midst of bills and junk mail is like getting a little burst of caring.
This summer I saw an article about the Letteracy Deck in Grand Marais, a program sponsored by the Minnesota Children’s Press and funded by a Blandin Foundation grant, to promote letter and postcard writing. Visitors to the deck overlooking the harbor and Lake Superior were given materials for writing and drawing along with beautiful stamps. The project was called “Love Letters to Lake Superior,” which were addressed to editorial pages, environmental groups, elected officials, worship groups, and friends and family. Young people were given a chance to participate in civic action and environmental education while experiencing the power of expressing and sharing their ideas in their own handwriting about how they felt about the incredible wonder of nature called Lake Superior. That’s quite a different experience from clicking a button on a computer to sign a petition.
I told my friend about the postcard-writing, and we discovered we each had a large stash of unsent postcards, so we decided using them would be a great way to post quick updates more often. Now we receive several postcards a week, enjoying scenes from our favorite artists, vacations from yesteryear, beautiful photos, and some goofy cartoons.
Someone told me recently that the schools in Superior, Wis. have reinstated teaching cursive writing, realizing its value. Perhaps elsewhere, too? Author, teacher, and artist Natalie Goldberg wrote, “Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart.” Is there anyone you’d like to write this week?