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Peterson: Cursive is a dying art I never mastered

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My signature is a mess. And it is the best I can do with cursive writing.

I may have missed fountain pens by a few years when growing up – ah, the advent of the 19-cent Bic pen – but cursive writing was drilled into us from third grade on. Mrs. Hickey had her work cut out with me.

Printing in block letters was so much easier, and I had mastered that. But in third grade we were required to write in cursive. To say it was beautiful was an understatement.

One letter gracefully flowing into the next was a work of art. One that I never mastered. And this was before I had ever heard of the word “computer” or worse yet, “texting.” I’d say, “even worse yet, Twitter,” but I have not advanced that far in social media skills.

Texting wasn’t a word in third grade, and if it was, it would have probably had something to do with reading textbooks. “Oh, Dick can’t come out and play. He had a lot of texting to catch up on.” No chance. Not when a perfectly uninvented and uncool word could be used, “reading.”

Texting really still could be called writing and be accurate and understandable to the masses. We didn’t need a new word. Alas, we got one.

Mrs. Hickey had her hands full that year, and she probably accomplished more than any other teacher I have had. Not only did she have to teach cursive writing to a group of primitive printers, she had to teach division and the multiplication tables up to 12, not to mention how to use a dictionary.

We were raw material in third grade, just able to read and write coherent sentences such as “How are you?” and “I am fine” to pen pals. In cursive.

The Northwest Herald’s Shawn Shinneman reported a few weeks back about the status of cursive writing in society, and he didn’t have good news to report. Schools are not teaching it as much. It used to be a half hour a day was devoted to cursive writing; now it’s down to 5 to 15 minutes a day, if at all. The goal is to teach students how to read it as well as how to sign their names. The extra time is being devoted to computers.

I would have been all for it in third grade as I struggled mightily with cursive writing, especially the capital Es and Qs and Zs, to say nothing of stringing together the lowercase letters of a word to make it legible. It was as if I had a cinder block attached to my wrist. It wouldn’t flow across the page but jump, stop and start.

I’d look at the cursive charts that were pinned above the blackboards and knew what I wanted the letters to look like. Best friend Stephen Schloesser had perfect penmanship, and I couldn’t keep up with the smartest kid in the class.

In eighth grade, we had a long paper to write about a subject of our choosing. I wrote an essay that was a fictional, humorous account of grammar, which is where schools ought to be devoting that time left over from cursive lessons. I’ve seen the email. Too many people are too nearly illiterate because of computers and texting.

It remains one of the pieces of writing that I am most proud of, but I lost points because my penmanship was atrocious. It was duly noted – by a very kind teacher – that I could have put more effort into my handwriting. This was before typewriters. By then, we weren’t practicing cursive writing; we were applying what we learned and being judged on it. It was that important.

Today, my handwriting is a hybrid of cursive and block printing. I never could master the lowercase s, for instance. I switch gears to block printing when I come to the s. Before writing this, I tried to write a sentence or two using the cursive writing that was drilled into me beginning in third grade. It took forever and it looked atrocious, as if I had a cinder block attached to my wrist. Ah, memories.

I have seen precious few people who are experts at cursive writing, with one letter flowing perfectly into the next as if they were meant to be mates for life. It’s a thing of beauty, and I am jealous. If only I could master cursive instead of the swill I put down on paper. When I write letters, I have to try to take the reader into account and slow down so what I write actually can be read on the other end.

The one I have the most practice at – signing my name – is the one I am worst at. It is a squiggle of up-and-down lines that could very well be my name when I insist on it. Mrs. Hickey wouldn’t accept it. I’d be marked wrong and be told to sign another receipt, only this time slow down and use what I’ve learned. I’ve tried. It’s not going to happen. I flunk.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be reached at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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