A Palmer-Method Penman Recalls The Write Stuff

I recently made a resolution that had nothing to do with the new year. In fact, it's one I make from time to time and at which I repeatedly fail.

To put it plainly, I used to have beautiful handwriting. Every so often, evidence of past graphological glory surfaces: a sixth-grade essay on fire prevention; a fourth-grade theme (ah, whatever happened to the theme?) on a less-than-remarkable summer vacation; a book report on the Vikings....

What all of these treasures have in common is that they are appealing to the eye. My erstwhile celebration of perfectly symmetrical loops, swirls, and gently inclined letters has, over the years, degenerated into a jagged scrawl that I am able to overcome, to some extent, with only the most intense concentration.

Hence the resolution. This time it was initiated by the resurfacing, after all these years, of a certificate - an Award of Merit - for penmanship. Issued when I was in the seventh grade, it is reminiscent of nothing less than a college diploma, replete with Gothic header and curlicues and signed by the members of the board of awards, C. O'Neill and M.E. Burke, their perfectly pedestrian names enmeshed in an arbor of calligraphical flourishes.

I don't think it immodest to say that I deserved that certificate. For it was the culmination of a process of handwriting development that was initiated in the second grade (first-graders were not allowed to attempt cursive) under the tutelage of Mrs. Lempkin, a mere wisp of a woman with jet-black hair who, brandishing her pen like a battle sword, led us headlong into the glorious ranks of what she ceremoniously called "The Good Writers Club."

Her standard was the Palmer Method, a floppy booklet of exercises for the development of beautiful script. I can still recall with clarity the pages of loops, swirls, and broad zigzags, and eventually living letters, which danced from margin to margin, page after page, like ranks of infantry with one objective: to vanquish the enemy, sloppy penmanship.

I grew to love those repetitive exercises, which Mrs. Lempkin approached as art. Especially the ellipses, drawn over and over to develop a smoothness and continuity of hand, which, in due time, was applied with particular care to the letters "O" and "Q."

In light of this background, I find it strange that penmanship is no longer taught in the grammar schools. How could something once considered so important suddenly not be spoken of at all? When I was in elementary school, my tests carried two grades, one for content and one for handwriting. When, exactly, did the latter fall by the wayside? I sometimes think it's no coincidence that penmanship ceased to be taught in American schools upon Mrs. Lempkin's retirement.

I once broached this topic with a latter-day grammar-school teacher. When I asked her if she valued good handwriting in her students she looked puzzled, as if I had addressed her in Albanian. After a moment's thought, she ventured the guarded response, "Well, they use word-processors nowadays."

It was clear that we were from different planets. In an age of increasing homogenization, when one can get the same food anywhere and strip malls are making all our cities look alike, handwriting is as good as a fingerprint for establishing one's individuality. The signature is still evidence of uniqueness that even the courts accept. The message of good handwriting is: "This is you. This is your mark. Work at it. Make it beautiful."

Which, of course, leads to another argument for good penmanship. Writing by hand is a slow process; the slower the better, actually. The physical act of slipping lines of wet ink onto paper is an almost organic connection between the writer and the word. And when one takes the time to emphasize shape, size, and proportion, one is lingering with those words, giving them time to percolate in the mind and settle in for the long haul. Using a computer gets the job done, but it is nothing like a meditative act. It's more like doing the dishes.

WHAT to do about the current neglect? Mrs. Lempkin's solution was punitive. I can still see Michael McCue, who had the worst handwriting in the school, standing at the blackboard for hours on end, his hand quivering with exhaustion, as Mrs. Lempkin made him write, over and over again, "The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog."

Perhaps it is the memory of that mortification that admonishes me to take care, slow down, and remember the loops and swirls. I cannot deny that I use a computer for most of my writing these days; but for letters to friends and family I try to use a fountain pen and indelible ink, and I do my utmost to honor Messrs. O'Neill and Burke's estimation of my penmanship. I envision my correspondents passing my letters to friends and loved ones and gushing, "What beautiful handwriting!"

After all these years, I am still trying to do Mrs. Lempkin proud.

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