Yesterday I was working on allatsea and in particular I was adding to a page about my childhood in SA, and it was all about writing. By writing I mean the physical act of forming words using a pen or pencil (or a quill or even a hammer and chisel). I learnt how to “write” in my third year of primary school (Std 1 for those who come from my generation), at least I learnt how to do what they called “real writing”, or, as it is better known “cursive script“.
I knew more or less how to write (print) by the time I hit school anyway, but this new fangled skill was one that was taught way back then to almost every child in the country, doing real writing set you apart from your fellows in the junior classes and meant that there was one more thing for teachers to nit pick and to warm the rear end/knuckles/legs or wherever they preferred to use the wooden spoon or ruler. We had specially ruled exercise books with the normal lines and an extra line above and below it. It looked similar to the pic below; the green lines being the extra lines.
Technically these spaces were where the ascenders and descenders would go so that they were all the same size. Heaven help you if those ascenders and descenders were not of the same height or depth, you would have to do it again until you caught the hint. Of course all slopes had to be at the same angle too, and I think we would have initially practised individual letters until we had more or less got the hang of our P’s and Q’s. Remember that there are upper and lower case versions of each letter of the alphabet and they all had to join up somehow.
All of this new fangled stuff was crammed into our heads and we had to stop using printing and start using cursive or else! (slitting of throat motion with finger).
I was one of those thousands of schoolchildren all over the world that had an awful handwriting, even I admit that I cannot read it, although the scrawl I use today bears little resemblance to the scrawl I had way back in the late 1960’s. I am not quite sure who decided to make school children miserable by imposing the restrictions of cursive script in our lives, it was not as if we had a gazillion other things to worry about. Cursive is supposed to speed up your handwriting by eliminating the constant pen raising that printing imposes, although I was always much quicker printing than writing cursive. In fact today I use a mix of both, joining 2 or 3 letters into one and printing others, and naturally my handwriting has really developed and changed as I became more or a keyboard user. Everybody does agree that only pharmacists can read what I write and it usually will result in a box of green pills, a cough mixture and a very large spiked suppository.
Back in school we would labour over our exercises all under the watchful gaze of Mrs Shirmer who seemingly created perfect letters on the board which looked nothing like the labourious creations that we struggled with. As far as we were concerned she was never satisfied, and a glare from Miss Shirmer could chase a lion away. As the years passed so we got better at it, considering how much practise we had, and every one of us had a different style of writing, some were neater than others (girls mostly) and some looked like drunken spiders had done a waltz down the page (me).
When we hit high school we were introduced to a new subject called “Technical Drawing” and our first week or so was spent relearning how to print! Mr Van Der Merwe would tell us to fill a page with A’s or B’s or C’s depending on his mood and how bad we were unlearning cursive. In technical drawing everything is printed, cursive is not used! neatness was imperative and stencils were not allowed. I think tech drawing was one subject I really found interesting because it gave me a whole new world to explore, and while I was not brilliant at it I was that interested in it that after I had left school I bought a drawing board, and used to draw isometric and perspective drawings of ships and aircraft. I probably still use the skills I learnt in that class today, and while I can’t remember how to draw an ellipse I at least know what an ellipse is.
Back at the normal school desk we were now much faster at taking notes, and often had to translate from Afrikaans to English on the fly while scribbling at a rate of knots and naturally I drew comments about my scrawl.
Not much has changed except that nowadays I do not need to use cursive anymore, In fact while thinking about this blogpost I tried my hand at writing the alphabet in cursive, and it was not good! However, there is no teacher leaning over me and making suggestive motions with the cane or wooden spoon. I can write as untidy as I want to and nobody can tell me otherwise. There appears to be a movement afoot to stop the teaching of cursive script in schools and I am ambivalent about that, I do think that it is a skill to acquire although not much use in a modern world where keyboards dominate and most teens can do things with their thumbs and cellphones that I won’t even attempt. It would really be a shame to scrap the skill because it is considered archaic and of no real use, if anything it should be taught because sometimes you just need to sit down and write a decent letter to the bank manager or your sweetheart. Alas nobody writes letters anymore and that personal touch is gone too.
As somebody that dabbles in history it is inevitable that I will encounter documents from an era when cursive was extensively used, and trying to decipher that writing can be really difficult, so maybe being able to write cursive does make sense.
The example above I found in an archive and it was a petition to Paul Kruger for a pardon, although it was very legible in spite of it being over 100 years old.
I used to have a number of penfriends over the years, and we used to scrawl our way back and forth on a regular basis, and of course when we were in the army letter writing was a regular occupation. Somehow sending an email home just lacks that touch that a much thumbed letter holds. Letters were things to keep and reread when it got quiet and you longed for home, and of course many soldiers would lovingly sniff the pink pages that their girlfriends would send them, and that would cause them to perform many pushups. A printed love letter just does not cut it!
So pick up your pen and relearn cursive, it may come in handy one day!
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