The writing on the wall

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By Sam Smith

The first F that I received was during the second grade, when my class was learning how to write that very letter in cursive — the

lowercase f, to be exact. I remember staring at the worksheet when Ms. Stooksbury assigned the task of writing row after row of the letter.

I couldn’t recall which direction to take the second loop, what linguists refer to as “the bowl.” Did the second bowl curve to the right or the left? I decided to write it both ways: bent left on half the page (incorrect), bent right on the other half (correct). I thought it was a fair gamble, going 50-50.

I received a capital F.

A handy skill

I remember thinking cursive must be a curse. I could accept that the letters of the alphabet had to be in a specific order from A to Z – after all, there was a song about it – but why did I have to learn writing them a different way than I already knew?

As I grew up and discovered the importance of the written word, I learned there was more to cursive than distressing elementary school students.

Looking through the archives at the Campbell County Historical Society, I found proof of the importance of knowing cursive.

I could decipher the names of newborns on birth records and the length of lives on death certificates. I made sense of who got married and what caused a divorce. I could read the letters Civil War soldiers sent to families and what lovers sent to each other. Condolences, observances, wishes and thoughts would have been lost on me if I couldn’t read cursive.

Smart phones, touch screens and motion sensors have their legitimate uses, but it remains beneficial to be able to write longhand. I took this ability for granted until I read about a man named Jean-Dominique Bauby who had a stroke that left him with “locked-in syndrome.” He was completely paralyzed, only able to use his left eye. Through a series of timed blinks and a transcriber reciting the alphabet, he was able to write his remarkable memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The average word took two minutes to record and 200,000 blinks to finish the book. The immediacy of typing on a keyboard is self-evident, but there remain special advantages in the practice of writing on a page.

Cursive is inclusive

Perhaps most importantly, cursive connects us to our heritage and past. Imagine needing a translator to help with a document written in your own language, being unable to differentiate between Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Declaration of Independence.

There are generations of people who still write handwritten letters, including my grandmother and several Press columnists.

There is a depth of conviction and authenticity that is only present in documents signed firsthand as opposed to typed, and there is a charming allure to journal entries written longhand.

Skeptics of cursive being taught in schools rightfully recognize the importance of teaching keyboarding skills, but it would be a disservice to deem cursive unnecessary.

New cursive handwriting standards, implemented with the passage of House Bill 1697 last spring, have cemented teaching the skill as part of the curriculum for elementary schools throughout Tennessee. Legible penmanship is required by the third grade.

“Students need to learn to sign their name and basic strokes,” said Lori Adkins, principal of Caryville Elementary. “We are a technological society, teaching at a quicker pace and with much more rigor, but cursive has always been taught in our schools.”

All principals of elementary schools who could be reached for comment supported cursive on their curricula.

Robert Angel, principal of Jellico Elementary, where cursive is taught from the third to fifth grade, said he is glad to see students well-prepared as they enter middle school. He recalled high school students who struggled to write their signatures.

“It’s good to see cursive implemented,” he said.

Allison Poston, principal of White Oak Elementary, said her third-grade students seem to be enjoying it.

The upper hand

Cursive builds motor skills separate from print writing, reinforces learning, helps internalize text and further aids those with disabilities. Dyslexic people have a better chance of making sense of letters that look too similar in print. Of course, being able to write in cursive isn’t exactly a highlight to place on most resumés, but like other supposedly “outdated” skills like Morse code and astronavigation, it’s better having skills you don’t need than needing skills you don’t have.

Financial security is heightened with the uniqueness of a signature. Autographs in print lack the gravitas of their cursive counterparts. The artistic and characteristic elements of cursive are valuable as well. In being taught to write cursive, students have a more direct relationship with their words than through a keyboard. There is no backspace key on the literal page, making the merits of efficient word choice and conciseness more apparent. The way in which we write can be indicative of whom we are, from the hand or hands with which we write to the angles and sizes of our inscriptions. There is even speculation that a person’s handwriting can be correlated to personality.

Write on.