Tuesday 13 November 2018

A fine cursive hand

A couple of weeks ago, one of my 1st Year Cell Biology students rocked up to class with his right hand in plaster. He was sorry to have broken himself and wondered what he should do about writing up the experiments.
Bob: Are you right-handed then?
Stu: Yes.
Bob: Well you'll have to use your left, so. Give it a go, if you don't try, you'll think you're crippled. If you scratch away and write something, anything, then I'll cut you some slack on the marking.
An hour later, he showed me his progress: the writing was scraggy but legible and he was quite chuffed with himself. The drawings were much worse - like a child of four. Then again it was not the worst in the class.

The reason I insisted on him trying was that I've been there myself - in 1997 I broke both wrists [in series] the first accident took out my right hand and I could still use use one or two of the fingers for typing, so it wasn't really a handicap at work. Who actually writes much with a pen anymore? My mother otoh, tripped on a rug in our kitchen and, aged 73, broke her right wrist. She quickly learned to write with her left-hand and by the time her plaster was removed was almost as quick with left as right. I remember thinking it was noteworthy that her left-handwriting was shaky but recognisably hers; not like an alien scrawl from demonic possession. How does that work? How do we develop a distinctive hand? Is it all training and example, or is there some slice of genetics in the mix?
That's an autograph from WB Yeats: with horizontal flip. The Stolen Child. Where dips the rocky highland / of se of Slewth ^[wood]^ in the lake / there lies a leafy island / where flapping herons wake / the drowsy water rats; Sing it! When my sister was a teenager, she taught herself to write 'in mirror' from right to left like she was living in Israel or Syria. It took a while until her party trick became completely easy. Again, her writing was recognizably her own albeit backwards. Leonardo da Vinci more famously used the same technique in his notebooks.

In primary school my handwriting was all over the shop and I was put through remedial classes in a largely vain attempt to develop in me a fine cursive hand. It was part of being the despair of my parents and teachers because I clearly wasn't stupid but seemed to be functionally illiterate. Then at the age of 15 or so, I embarked on a project to transcribe all my favorite poems into a couple of fat foolscap blocks of lined paper. It was unfortunate for me and all the trees that serviced the task that I liked long narrative Victorian epics like Morte d'Arthur [300 lines] and Sohrab and Rustum [950 lines]. I rapidly discovered that I could write more and quicker if I wrote neatly - I was a machine - and it still looks well on the page [Wilfred Owen for the Weekend that's in it: he died exactly a week before the Armistice 4th Nov 1918]
I was reflecting on this because The Boy and his family were over for a few days over Hallowe'en and we got plenty face time with Gdau.I and Gdau.II. The older one is in her second year in an English country primary school which is so small that pairs of year groups are bundled into the same room with one teacher. It's therefore quite intimate and the head-teacher tries to channel a holistic education not too trammelled by curriculum and syllabus. tries but the poor chap spends a lot of time filling in forms to show how he is obeying policy from the education mandarins. The policy seems driven by two things:
  • a) accountability and transparency which requires reams of form-filling and external checking that detracts from the actual teaching and dampens each spark of spontaneity into a grey sameness that spreads like a pall across the classrooms of the country.
  • b) a sort of bullying nostalgia for the kind of things that were emphasised in the 1950s and 19060s when the current policy wonks and their political masters were in short pants at school. "If it didn't do me any harm, then it's what we want for the current generation who have been allowed too much woolly leftie 'imagine you're a medieval peasant' nonsense. Children really prefer rote learning of dates. And grammar, let's have more grammar; grammar requires discipline; let's have more discipline; discipline requires rules; rules require rulers; Mr Chapman used to give us a tonk with a ruler in 1959, never did us any harm"
No more than me, Gdau.I is not stupid and she has much more bottle - staying-power / concentration / engagement - than I did at her age. Part of my identity was to be a little drifty; so much so that my siblings briefly called me 'bubble'. As soon as she needed to, Gdau.I learned how to write more than her name and started to get her thoughts, whims and ideas down on paper. The more she wrote, the easier it got and more thoughts, whims and ideas were captured. Then her age group passed the arbitrary age threshold when the central government dictates that all English school-children should start performing >!ark! ark!< joined up handwriting à la 1956. Well, you may imagine that has put a real damper on her true creativity - her teachers prefering to hector the kids to make all the letters in a word join up than give any credit for what the words mean. That kind of petty, picky, rule-based box-ticking just makes me bloody furious. We sat round the fire after the girls had gone to bed and found that we had all made a big shift on the hand-writing front which came from within in the early teen years. If my sister could teach herself to write backwards in a couple of weeks, and I could miraculously start writing neatly, then it seems an exercise in futility to foist that sort of thing on children ten years younger when they aren't ready for it. Why? What use is it? So that they can write thank-you letters to their grand-parents.

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