We heard an interesting piece on the CBC the other day about the increasing rarity of cursive writing. There is an exhibit at the New Brunswick Museum running through the first of May 0f 2019 asking whether writing is still relevant to you? Please enjoy this column that was originally published in the Kings County Record on March 8th of 2005.
I had occasion, the other day, to take up a writing implement which does not plug into the electrical service, and an innocent bystander, observing the whole operation said, “How can you write like that?” Of course, I knew right away that the questioner was right-handed. And of course, I as a lefty, also realized that I had unconsciously gone back to holding the paper the way I had been taught in grade school.
In our day, the approved method of making marks on the page was something called “Palmer penmanship.” I don’t know who Mr. Palmer was, but as far as I was concerned, he certainly had it in for kids. I have a little book on Slant Gothic (1918) that brings it all back. Consider the first page: “What is to be desired is quality not quantity… Do not leave a single poor letter on your Exercise sheet if you can improve it in any way. Therefore, make each letter so lightly that it can be erased with two or three strokes of an eraser.”
And so it goes. Soon the author tells us that “the straight lines are not difficult, but it takes much practise to make the curved lines rapidly and well.” Boy, do I remember those curved lines! Lines of wobbly Os and Cs and Ss and similar horrors.
Funny how long it takes us to realize what has happened to us. My school prided itself on not making left-handers change to right-hand ways. And it didn’t. But my teachers insisted that my paper be held the same way the right-handers held theirs. And so, I always wrote with my hand cranked around so that the pen followed my hand in that awkward way lefties are famous for.
Those were still the days of steel nibs and ink wells. Felt tips and ball points were still in the future, after the Second World War. If I was going to write my penmanship exercises without making an inky mess, there was nothing for it but the lefty crank. Otherwise your hand, following along after the pen, would move directly through the wet ink. (Actually, the early ball-points were worse than the old steel pens. Ink would dry by the time you crossed the line above, but with those old ball points the heel of my hand was always blue.)
In the fifth grade I taught myself to print and I could print as fast or faster than most people could write. It was my private rebellion I suppose for all those pages of wobbly Os. I printed my way through college and out into the big world until I took up with the typewriter and now the word processor (farewell white-out fluid!). But the penny dropped years after I left school that it was all right to hold the paper slanted the other way and abandon the lefty crank.
Every once in a while, though, like the other day, the old school tradition takes command and the lefty crank to the wrist returns – for a moment – until the wrist complains about being asked to assume a position it no longer regards as within normal limits. Of course, back then, we did learn how to write with a degree of skill, even if for whatever reason we later chose another way to make our marks. In the early grades the mind (and the body) is still flexible enough to absorb untraced mysteries like grammar, spelling, and handwriting without anything like the pain that acquiring them will occasion later on.
There is one other handicap that we lefties have to cope with: dextrous and sinister. The two words come from the Latin words for right and left. And even in Roman days a sinister person was likely to be “awkward, wrong, perverse, improper” not to mention “unlucky, injurious, adverse, unfavourable, ill, bad, etc.” And even if he can use either hand a left-hander doesn’t get much credit. Such a person is only ambidextrous – i.e. has two right hands.
But there is one time when us sinister types turn out to be auspicious (or did, in ancient Rome). The Romans sometimes needed help in making decisions. Unlike us they did not flip a coin or pull petals from a daisy. They consulted the auspex, one who could say whether a contemplated action should take place or not by watching birds fly. There were lots of rules, among them that the auspex had to face south. Facing south, east would be on the left hand. Birds flying toward the east were favourable (or, as we say, auspicious). Therefore, in this case sinister meant “lucky, favourable, auspicious.”
It may not help the lefty slant but at least us sinister types have our good moments. If you need birds consulted, by all means get a lefty.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.