I read a wire story recently that some schools are dropping cursive writing from the curriculum. Kids don't use it, they say. They type everything on computers and iphones. It's a waste of time, they say. Cursor has replaced cursive. They want to teach typing in grade school instead.
Is nothing sacred?
It's been a while since someone told me "You write like a nun."
That's because, like most people, I let my handwriting go steadily downhill since Sister Salvador and Sister Peter Marie put me through the paces of the Palmer Method of cursive handwriting in my early grade school years.
In my handwriting prime, my cursive letters had all the precise curves and curlicues ol' Austin Norman Palmer had in mind when he created his method around 1888. Palmer gained national attention when he exhibited his penmanship at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Ice cream cones, hot dogs and penmanship ... no wonder cursive spread like wildfire.
The good sisters at St. Paul School in Highland were champions of Palmer's method.
For our first encounter, Sister Salvador passed out those big, round, red pencils that felt like telephone poles in tiny first-grader hands. If today's pencils are No. 2s, those babies must have been at least No. 683. They were used only for handwriting. Other pencils were good enough for math and art.
Next came the sheets of cream-colored paper with red lines. It wasn't your basic white paper. It was mottled with what looked like big chunks of wood floating on it. It had to be extra-strong so the hard-pressers wouldn't tear it.
The red lines were in sets of three. Solid red top and bottom, with a line of lighter dashes sandwiched between them. All capitals and lower case letters with ascenders had to touch both red lines, but not break them. Lower case without ascenders reached the dashes. It was a lot like coloring inside the lines, which I'm still not good at. They left me out in cold when it came to descenders like p's and q's. There were no lines. To this day, I have to watch my p's and q's.
It wasn't just about writing, it was about posture and grip.
Sister demonstrated the right way to sit. Back straight, chin up, shoulders back, arms just so on the desk. It was easy for Sister to sit straight because she had all that starched white gear around her face and neck for support. But for a first-grader, it was torture. I lost grade points for wiggling.
When I slumped, Sister had a way of grabbing my earlobe, which automatically made me sit straight, chin up, shoulders back, arms just so on the desk. It was an amazing maneuver, the Salvador Method.
Also crucial was the pencil grip. Hold it loosely between your thumb and index finger (or pointer, as Sister called it, although we always got in trouble if we pointed at somebody). The pencil should rest comfortably on the middle finger.
Sister would sneak up behind me and try to pluck the pencil from my hand. If I was holding it correctly, she said, it would slide right out. If I was clenching ... well, she could just about lift me out of the desk by the pencil. Of course, I was a lot smaller then.
After weeks of penmanship boot camp, we finally put pencil to paper. But we didn't get to make the letters displayed on posters across the top of the blackboard. We made circles and circles and more circles. Circles inside of circles and overlapping circles that looked like long Slinkies. Always touching, but never breaking, the red lines.
Actual letters came much later. One at a time. We had to master A before we could even think about B or C. It took a while, but most of the kids in my class finally got it.
Our D's were delightful with loops, top and bottom. Our M;s and G's were M-m-m Good. And our V's? They were Very, Very Good. Sometimes they Va-Va-Va-voomed right off the page.
By the time I got out of St. Paul's I could have outwritten Palmer himself. My handwriting was A+. My signature was the Mona Lisa of signatures.
That's when my handwriting headed south.
There were no nuns in high school and college. I took handwritten notes with an emphasis on speed, not beauty. I started gripping my pencil like one of those carnival game claws.
On my first job as a reporter, I took a phone message for the crusty old education reporter and handed it over.
"You write like a nun," he groused, crumpled it up and tossed it in the trash. "Next time, type it like everybody else."
Nowadays, my signature is readable when I take my time. But the bank and the IRS don't care if it's just chicken scratching, so why bother?
One of my prized possessions is a framed program from a Baseball Writer's dinner. "Dad," my son once asked me, while looking closely at the handwritten signature on it, "Who is Stone Crabtree?"
It's Hall of Famer Steve "Lefty" Carlton's autograph.
If Sister Salvador ever runs into Stone ... er ... Steve, he better watch out. She'll grab his earlobe and he'll be sitting up straight with his chin up, shoulders back and Hall of Fame arms just so on the desk.
Why, she might even turn him into a righty.