My high-school English teacher once told me that the happiest day of her life was the day I learned to type.
She had struggled valiantly at taming my florid writing style while struggling to decipher my left-handed scrawl.
My report cards were always good until you came to the line for “handwriting” and “physical education.” In each case, I got a “C,” which I think stood for “Charity.”
Now, it seems, the trend is for educational institutions to downplay the teaching of cursive handwriting, which is becoming increasingly irrelevant as the keyboard and the text pad become the favorite media for communication.
I’m not so sure I approve.
I remember making the transition from No. 2 lead pencil to Underwood manual typewriter and finding it awkward. When I wrote by hand, there was no danger of my fingers racing ahead of my mind. The No. 2 pencil was also easier to erase.
But as journalism emerged as my chosen profession, the keyboard emerged as a necessity. Newspaper deadlines were too demanding to permit a leisurely resort to cursive writing.
I had made the fortunate choice of taking typing in high school, anticipating that I would need it on the job. I found myself using the touch system in a career where most people used the hunt-and-peck. It made it easier for me to adapt to the electric typewriter when it came along and, eventually, to the computer.
I stuck with the old-fashioned reporter’s notepad throughout my career, taking notes in an improvised shorthand. My scrawl never improved over time, but the interval between taking notes and typing stories was usually short, and the notes served mainly to jog my memory. Consulting sketchy notes was quicker than transcribing from an audio-cassette.
Until the advent of the optical character scanner, handwriting was still a necessity for a reporter. When typing for a deadline, typos came fast and furious, and the solution was to strike through the offending word and pencil in the correct word. The skilled Lin-o-type operators who transferred the text to lead slugs were adept at reading a variety of scrawls.
Today, the only time I use handwriting is when signing documents and checks. Most of my checks are now of the electronic variety and do not rely on handwritten signatures. Even my notes to Miss Peggy are either emailed or punched out on a keyboard and printed in 24-point type. It’s quicker than finding a pen and paper, and the notes are easier to read than something scrawled. But if push comes to shove, I can still write you a note by hand, and if you can’t read it, you can call on Miss Peggy, who is as good as those Lin-o-type operators at deciphering it.
I have this uneasy feeling about going into the future without knowing how to write in cursive script. Suppose the Iranians hack into our power grid and zap all our electrical energy, not to mention our Internet connections. Will we have to go back to smoke signals?
It’s the way I felt when turn signals replaced hand signals in driving. What would happen if the fuse blew on the turn signals?
That proved to be an unfounded fear. People don’t bother to give turn signals, even though it takes only the flick of a short lever. But when the turn signals fail on my faithful Camry, I still feel the need to roll down the window, stick my arm out and signal the motorist behind me – even though the motorist behind me probably doesn’t have a clue as to what I’m doing. And I have the nagging fear that one day my turn signals AND my electric windows might fail, and the folks in front of and behind me will just have to guess at my intentions.
If I’m ever stranded on a desert island with my iPad resting on the bottom of the sea, I’d like to know that I could slip a handwritten Sticky Note into a bottle and throw it to the waves in the reasonable hope that it will reach somebody who can read cursive handwriting.
Many school systems are now teaching keyboard skills in addition to handwriting, so kids are learning to type as early as the fourth grade. I suspect that they’re learning texting even earlier. I was in the eighth grade before I took my first year of typing instruction. I still don’t text, but the text messages I see look a lot like my old reporter’s notes translated into print.
One 16-year-old student reported that he studied 10 hours a week for 30 weeks preparing for his College Board exams. But he was momentarily stumped when he found, at the end of the test, a requirement for a one-sentence, handwritten statement affirming that he was the person whose name and address appeared on the answer sheet.
“It kind of threw me off, because I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “I haven’t written cursive in years.”
Steve Graham, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said people tend to judge the quality of your ideas by your handwriting. In fact, he said, if you can’t transfer your thoughts to paper via pen or pencil, your ideas will be less developed.
“The lack of written communication is having an impact on our ability to focus and concentrate,” said Edda Manley of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation. “Young people today lack the ability to focus for long periods of time on tasks like reading and writing.”
She added: “If the computers fail, what have you got? You still have to be able to communicate somehow. If you lose the ability to write, it all stops.”
Makes sense to me.
Readers may email Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@AOL.com.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.