Not too long ago, my 6th grade Monkey had to sign several contracts – various agreements between himself and sundry teachers and coaches.
“Do I have to write in cursive?” 11 year old Monkey asks.
“It’s probably a good idea,” I reply.
There is a pause. Silence during which time I assume he is signing his name on the assorted colored sheets of papers. But after a while, I glance over and notice he has written only the first three letters of his first name. He is looking off into space, clearly stuck.
“Mom,” he says eventually.
“Mmmmm?” I ask, pretending to be oblivious but definitely aware of his dramatic pause. But I’m thinking to myself, maybe boy has some deep moral, ethical or philosophical opposition to being asked to sign a particular contract. I’m thinking maybe he is hung up on one of the terms. Maybe something seems unreasonable to him, and he is not willing to just sign on the dotted line. For a moment, I’m actually proud. I figure he’s read the contracts and internalized the content, and now he has questions, reservations. He’s thinking critically about his commitments and if he can take on more responsibility. . .
“I can’t remember how to make a “v” in cursive,” Boy announces. “I kinda forgot how.”
My child is in 6th grade. He is a stellar student. How could it be that he has forgotten how to make his “v’s” in cursive? I wonder. But I am patient. The school year is just kicking off, and he has been away for three weeks at overnight camp, playing in the dirt with friends, enjoying the heat of summer, so maybe he needs a quick mini-lesson.
“Sure, honey,” I say and prepare to give him a quick tutorial in cursive – which morphs into an elongated lesson because, as it turns out, Boy doesn’t remember how to make a capital “J” (which, for the record, is the first letter in his last name); neither does he recall how to make a lower case “b” (also a letter in his last name!).
At this point, I hear the ocean in my ears.
This is never a good thing as it generally means a giant wave is rising up from the deepest, angriest depths of me, and it generally culminates in a boatload of phone calls.
“Buddy.” I ask Mr. Calm, Cool and I’m-Not–Worried-At-All-That-I Don’t-Know-My-Alphabet-In-Cursive, “How is it that you do not know all your cursive letters?”
My son proceeds to explain to me that, while cursive letters were taught in 3rd grade, his teachers didn’t really require that he (or any of his classmates) write in cursive.
“Writing in cursive was pretty much optional,” Boy tells me.
(Can you hear the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Antarctic and Indian Oceans rolling around inside my head?)
I couldn’t help myself. I made a few calls to a few principals (who shall remain nameless) in a few local public schools (which shall remain nameless) in a few nearby districts (which shall also remain nameless). Most principals agreed that there is just so much material to cover to prepare students for standardized tests, that many things have had to go. (Damn you, No Child Left Behind!) One administrator told me that decisions had been made (note the passive voice) to focus less on cursive writing but that students could select cursive as “a font option” when printing from their computers.
Cursive? As a font option?
Hold on folks. I’m going back for a nostalgia moment.
I remember a time when we kids couldn’t wait to move from our world of block letters to the world of cursive which was infinitely more adult. (And I’m not the only one who felt this way! Read Kathy English’s awesome essay on the death of cursive!) My babysitters used cursive to write notes to each other, but I could never read their words as they were like some crazy, secret code I couldn’t decipher no matter how hard I tried. But I knew that one day I would eventually be deemed mature enough to learn “The Code,” that I would figure out how to connect letters by one single, continuous stroke. I knew I would learn to create words in loopy cursive letters and that, ultimately, I would be able to read my grandmother’s shaky script, my mother’s slanted hand, as well as my teacher’s perfect penmanship.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, cursive was one’s special signature. It distinguished one individual from another. The most elite received special training, and possessing a “fair hand” was considered a desirable trait for both men and women.
By the 1960s, a standardized method for teaching penmanship called D’Nealian Script had been introduced into schools all over the United States, and handwriting became more homogenized. I didn’t know any of this, of course, as I sat in class in 3rd grade in the mid-1970s. All I knew was that during “cursive time,” each of us learned to write the same way: on thin, oatmeal-colored paper that consisted of a series of two straight continuous horizontal lines with one broken line between them. We students sat with our pencils poised “at the basement” of the line ready to “go all the way up to the attic” or to stop “at the first floor.”
I remember being totally geeked up about learning cursive, but apparently, not everyone was as psyched about switching to cursive as this twit. And while I might have considered learning cursive a bit like taking a second art class, apparently, it wasn’t that way for everyone. For some kids, learning cursive was really difficult. I remember “the lefties” really struggled as did a bunch of kids who probably would have been diagnosed with some kind of fine-motor skill problem if they were going through the ranks today. But they didn’t test kids for things like that back in the 1970s. Instead, our teachers encouraged us (or goaded us, or punished us) until we learned our letters. And while we weren’t necessarily good at it right away, with daily practice, our shaky letters improved.
I wrote all my papers in cursive until my senior year in high school in the mid-1980s when my father brought home an enormous TRS-80 around the same time teachers were setting up the first “computer lab” at my high school.
So much has changed in twenty-five years! With the advent of word-processing and PDA’s and all things electronic, cursive has completely fallen out of favor. In fact, it has almost gone the way of the dinosaur. Without a doubt, typing is infinitely faster and easier to read than handwritten papers – but, now that I hear that cursive is not being reinforced, I wonder, is something being lost in making cursive optional?
First, there is the obvious, esoteric stuff. When written properly, cursive is beautiful. Reading a handwritten note from a friend or lover is actually a completely different experience than reading the same content typed. Don’t believe me? Go back and look at some old photo album that belonged to somebody’s great grandmother. Look at the handwriting. You can actually feel something of the person in the handwriting. It is so much more intimate than reading something on a piece of paper that looks like it came from a school or the mortgage company. Have you ever received a thank-you note via email? Ewwwww. What about a thank-you via text? Double ewwwwww! There is nothing more lovely than holding a card in your hands on which someone took the time to write a nice note thanking you for something that you did for them. I swear, you can feel the gratitude in the loops.
But “pretty” probably isn’t a good enough reason to keep cursive in the curriculum, right?
Ever the pragmatist, my husband says cursive will likely eventually disappear along with so many other “quaint niceties” like handwritten thank-you notes. He says the convenience of email and text will drive us away from handwriting altogether and computerized voice recognition and grammar programs will continue to improve. Hubby points out his signature is barely legible. It is his mark. “Well,” I countered, “At least you have a mark. Soon an entire generation of kids will be making X’s as they won’t be able to put their John Hancock on anything.” Hubby says I’m being overly dramatic, that I should calm down.
But I can’t calm down when I feel desperate inside. I’m the girl who still writes in journals and keeps yellow pads of paper filled with notes – all in cursive. My lesson plans are drawn up in cursive. My first draft of anything is always done in long-hand. I wonder what this means: if people cannot decipher their grandparents’ letters, how can they ever read important documents like our nation’s Constitution, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or our Declaration of Independence?
They’ll read those documents in textbooks,” Hubby responds. “Or online. More likely, they won’t read them at all.”
(I am pretty sure Hubby was just trying to pick a fight there.)
I shudder because as an educator I know things: the focus on cursive around third grade serves a larger purpose; it reflects the developmental connection between writing and thinking. Children who excel in handwriting skills tend also to excel in other academic pursuits. Cursive writing assists in the development of fine motor skills and muscle control, and it’s an introduction to self-expression. To abandon handwriting lessons could potentially interfere with the learning process as a whole.
I wish I could make some powerful claim that indicates students who are unable to read and write in cursive are guaranteed to score at least 100 points lower on their SATs than their cohorts who read and write in cursive. That would probably catch someone’s attention.
Doesn’t that look impressive?
Alas, I don’t have anything like that.
Americans are tired. We have been told that the sky is falling, the glaciers melting; the earth quaking; that strangers want to abduct our children, that neither government nor lawyers nor doctors can be trusted; the rainforests are being destroyed; that – in fact – the entire cosmos is running out of time. So who can bother to get upset over my li’l ole lament over the loss of cursive handwriting?
I think I’ll go write up a nice long grocery list – in cursive.
Just because I can.
- Handwriting skills waning, mother laments (cbc.ca)
- Mourning the Death of Handwriting (time.com)
- “Everybody Else Is Crazy” (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com)