Days of cursive might be history

The Middle Ages

May 04, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

I can tell which of my three sisters has sent me a card by the handwriting on the front of the envelope.

We all learned the same cursive style in elementary school, when the subject was taught every day for weeks.

I remember the posters of the cursive alphabet above the blackboard, the lined practice paper and the teacher saying, "Round, round, ready, write!" You actually got a separate grade for penmanship.

Over the years, my sisters' personalities have imprinted that basic cursive style, but you can still see it underneath Cynthia's precision and Ellen's flourishes.

And I can guess the age of loyal readers who eschew e-mail and write notes to me in what we used to call longhand. Each letter stops abruptly on the baseline before it makes the steep uphill climb to the next letter.

My children went to a Montessori school, where the foundation for handwriting was laid the first week. Table-washing and silver-polishing trained their young hands in the circular motion they would soon need.

Then they were tracing large cursive letters created in sandpaper so they could, literally, feel the way those letters curved and moved.

Today, the only thing my children write in cursive is a signature -- both illegible. One looks like a rolling sine wave. The other trails off like the last heartbeats of a dying patient.

My own signature still carries a memory of my father. As a child, I liked the way he made his "R," and I copied it.

Cursive handwriting is still on the curriculum in third grade in Maryland, but with the endless testing required by No Child Left Behind and new state standards, there is not much time to teach it.

Teachers are more likely to spend time on keyboarding skills, and they believe their students write more and write better when they type.

For some students, cursive handwriting is as much a frustration as art class.

But state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick says she still sees the "I'm a big girl now" excitement in third-graders when they begin to write cursive.

"But the assessments that are done now are not about how many kids can write legibly," she says. "It is how many computers do you have per student and what level of work can they do beyond word-processing."

The argument can be made that there isn't much use for cursive anymore, what with e-mail, text messages and debit cards. The lady in front of you in the grocery store who is writing a check just annoys you.

You can hire somebody to write your wedding thank-yous these days. And nobody writes letters home. Even soldiers and sailors can call from half a world away.

But cursive writing is beautiful. And it is intimate. And it is distinctive. And it is one more refining skill that is disappearing from schools. Like dancing lessons in gym class and sewing lessons in home ec.

Dance classes are now offered for the prospective bride and groom so they don't look foolish at their own wedding.

I know a young woman who said recently that she'd like to learn how to sew a button on a shirt. I made my prom dress.

The danger of bringing this up is that I will sound like an old fuddy-duddy, clucking at how poorly things are done these days.

Grasmick says it is her hope that cursive will continue to be taught, no matter what the technology.

"There are personal, professional and legal things that need to be done in handwriting," she says. "And there is a personal connection. I don't feel the same way when I receive a thank-you note done on a computer."

There are real scholars on this subject who worry that the next generation will not be able to read the Declaration of Independence because it is written in something that looks like hieroglyphics to them.

Future historians will not be able to consult on an HBO series because they will not be able to decipher John Adams' letters to Abigail.

Truth be told, because of my profession, I can type as fast as you can talk. When I have to take notes in longhand, I quickly lose the muscle strength to make those notes legible. Sometimes I can't read my own grocery lists.

But I can still sign my name on checks, my creditors and my children will be happy to hear, and the "R" in my last name looks just like my father's.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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