My friend Sarah’s recent comment on mis-reading my children’s handwriting inspired today’s post. I’m glad she prompted me, because this topic is near and dear to my heart.

Our subject: penmanship.

Exhibit A: Handwriting samples from my great-grandmother (faded letter at back) and grandmother (foreground). My grandparents were on a big East Coast trip in 1929; my great-grandmother moved into their house in Kansas to watch the two children, including my mom, who was 9 months old.

Now let’s look at the next two generations down: my mom’s handwriting is at left, and my teenage diary jottings are at right. Although my mom’s penmanship is neat and tidy, it does not reflect the formal style of her forebears. And while my diary contains plenty of photos, mementos, and immature rantings, there is absolutely no trace of the Palmer method. I did learn from this page that I weighed 120 in high school and that some cute boy told me if I got to 130, he would ask me out. Amazing, being encouraged to gain weight!

And now, Exhibit C. Since two out of three boys are away at camp, I presume they won’t see this post. The photo below shows the handwriting style of the fifth generation in our story – my sons.

This card is from a few years back, when Ian was in his Goth stage and dotting his I’s with skulls. While his printing is quite neat, it did take him forever to write a school paper, what with all those I’s to dot. Can you imagine a Victorian schoolmarm allowing such individuality in handwriting class?!

The point is, our school district teaches cursive in second grade – the D’Nealian method, it’s called. At first the kids are all thrilled to learn cursive, the rite of passage. It means they’re all grown up! But then the thrill fades, most of them revert to printing, and cursive is almost never in play for them. When I bring this up to teachers, they assure me that almost all of their students use the computer for their papers, and if they do hand-write something, they print. Further, they assure me that most of the printing they see, especially from boys, is very crude and clumsy.

And I worry for all the boys who never learned how to print legibly. You can only text for so long. What happens when they need to hand-write Valentines and love notes? What if their crushes flatly reject them based on their childish scrawls? I sort of regret not sending at least one of my sons to handwriting camp. Yes, it exists, and at first I scoffed at it, but now – too late – I see the point.

The person behind the words is revealed in his or her handwriting. Reading through the letters and journals of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers brings them to life for me in a way that an email or blog will not accomplish for future generations.

Cursive is clearly dying. We no longer have the time to master the art of penmanship, and we have plenty of other means of communication. And yet, when I look at the gorgeous copperplate handwriting of our American forebears, from John Hancock to my grandma, I can’t help but feel that the loss of cursive is a loss to our culture.

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