A week ago, I got a nice letter through the U.S. Postal Service. It came in a bright blue envelope, and inside was matching stationary with words written on it in ink. A handwritten note, and how about that?
My first thought? It must be from a prisoner at the Maine State Prison. I get a lot of those, you know, and they're all handwritten. You'd be surprised — nay, shocked! — at how neatly some of those inmates can write. And why not? Without fancy tablets, smartphones or computer keyboards, they have plenty of opportunity to practice their penmanship.
The rest of the world, though? Not so much.
By and large, pens and pads of paper have been reduced to the status of quaint relics. You may think of them fondly, but when push comes to shove, chances are you're going to take the easy way out, dashing off a text message or email when you need to get your thoughts down quick. Writing old-school is time consuming. Your wrists will ache, your fingers will become smeared with ink, and in the end there's no guarantee that others will be able to read what you've written. I mean, look at those hen scratchings.
The letter that arrived on my desk was from a nice lady named Betsy Way who lives up in Hartford. She has a computer — the woman knows how to type and email. She has an email address and everything. But her thoughts on the matter are almost poetic.
"I believe, as you can tell, that a handwritten note is truly something so personal, it's almost an act of love," she said. "There is too much hate in this world we live in. Growing up in the '60s with all the free love, free dope, free sex and free everything else was a great time. Now today, there is so much hate between people, countries and the world. No, I do not expect to change all that with a handwritten letter, but it makes me feel real good inside when I do write one. I think I may have already said this, but it also shows respect. That is something that, in my opinion, one has a right to except to be given and to receive."
My new friend Betsy (her letter was fan mail — of course we're friends) isn't saying that every piece of correspondence needs to be written with a pen. She's realistic about it, like so many others I talked to about the matter. Writing with a pen cramps your hand. You'll smear ink everywhere and if you want to change something in your missive, tough. Start over, chum. There's no copy and paste here.
Some things, though? They demand the labor of love that is handwriting.
"A handwritten note is always in order to send a sympathy card, or a birthday card, or a wedding card, any special occasion," Way said. "Lots of people still don't use the Internet. Take seniors that may live in a nursing home. What a wonderful thing to get a card or note in the mail. Even if they can't read, someone can read it for them."
"Handwritten Christmas cards or any other holiday cards," Way continues. "Most people don't even send them anymore. Again, another old-fashioned habit that is going out. A love note sent to a girl you like, like you mentioned you did to woo her. How sweet is that? This would work for any age, from young to old. Remember in grade school passing notes to that special one?"
Boy, do I. I used to get caught all the time sending letters of prolific woo to the girl du jour. Text message? It wouldn't have been the same. You can't fold a text message into a tight block of paper and then write "TLA," or "TLF" on the front of it.
Although, maybe there's an app for that.
Reading, writing, 'rithmetic
When I set about exploring the state of handwriting in this world of high-flying technology, the first people I thought of were teachers. Surely, I thought. Surely teachers cling to the old philosophy that kids need to learn proper penmanship lest they turn out to be horrible people bound for prison (where they will learn to write neatly once and for all, and how about that irony?).
But it isn't so clear. Most teachers I talked to do lament the passing of that era, but there's a certain shrugging resignation to the fact that typing on a keyboard — real-world, virtual or otherwise – is just plain easier and it's what the kids will be expected to do when they toddle into adulthood.
"Although I can be old-school on some things," said Lewiston Middle School teacher Susan Weber, "I guess I'm not on this. If I really think about it, I wonder, who cares? Does it really matter if we write straight or slanty? We don't sign too many things anymore. We use passwords and — coming soon — the mark of the beast on hand or forehead. So, like many things in school, such as memorizing facts that can be instantly Googled, we have to decide if it makes sense to keep doing it. If they are typing 98 percent of everything anyway . . ."
"Of course," Weber adds, "I think the well-educated person should know the dates of every Civil War battle and be able to parse sentences, so there should be some exposure to cursive writing for inquiring minds. My 6-year-old granddaughter has asked to be taught cursive. She and other motivated students will be the only ones eventually who can decipher the original documents of the founding fathers. Someone's got to do it."
It's not hard to imagine a world where nothing is written directly with the hand anymore. Go on, try it.
See what I mean?
Some teachers insist that children need to be taught how to write and how to write correctly. Get them while they're young, that's the idea. By the time the wee ones become pre-teens, it's probably too late. The best you can hope for is some readable block letters smeared across a page.
"I do encourage the use of cursive — I have the alphabet written in cursive posted across the front of my classroom," said Irene Marshall, another Lewiston school teacher. "I strongly feel that it will be a lost art form partly due to technology and partly due to it not being reinforced throughout ALL the grades, if indeed, taught in elementary grades.
"I must report that I've had several, conscientious students ask for assistance in forming letters in cursive," Marshall said. "I've had them practice on the board.
"However, to formally teach this dying form in seventh or eighth grade is not a priority," Marshall said, noting, "If we can legibly read the scrawl some students hand in, it is a blessing. Printing, if you want to call it that, has become the acceptable form of handwriting."
Not that Marshall doesn't appreciate a little bit of pay back.
"I continue to write my comments on their papers, assignments and lesson notes on the board in cursive and force my students to decipher what the heck I am trying to communicate," she said. "If I don't reinforce it, students will not think it important enough to use it."
Marshall includes a caveat I don't dare to omit: "These are my thoughts," she said, "and do not necessarily reflect the 'district's' point of view."
Better handwriting = better learning?
Let's face it, a teacher who demands handwritten work from his or her students is not doing themselves any great favors. Ultimately, he or she is the one who has to read those ink-smeared scribbles. Even neat handwriting isn't always easy to read. If you're plowing through a stack of term papers deep in the night, trying to follow each student's particular style is a sure-fire way to develop a brain-eating migraine.
Still, some teachers are so committed to their students, they insist that they work on their handwriting, even if it seems as antiquated as quill pens and ink wells in this day of intuitive keyboards. You may gripe and groan, lad, but you'll thank your teacher someday.
I mean, how are we going to communicate when the interwebs go down, as predicted in every other movie on the SyFy Channel these days.
"Students don't realize they may actually be required to write on job applications or sign official paperwork someday," said Linda Cox, an ed tech at Dirigo High School. "Sometimes I've been told I am old-fashioned, but I think the basics are still important skills for students to acquire: reading, writing and math. People need to be prepared to function without technology. It may not always be available."
For most of us, this technological divide prompts eye-rolling bewilderment. Why, back in our day, we had to collect trees from the forest in order to whittle our own pencils. Learning to write neatly builds character and yada yada, we get it. You're very old.
But it might be more than just old-timer grousing. There may be some hard science behind the learn-your-penmanship argument.
According to the group Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of cursive textbooks, "handwriting is more than a fine motor skill. It is also key for overall literacy development. Research shows that handwriting wires the brain for learning."
The people of Zaner-Bloser feel strongly about this, dedicating an entire section of its website to matters of scientific findings. For instance: "Students who have developed the mechanical process of handwriting have a big advantage when it comes to writing stories or essays. These students are able to devote more concentration to the content of the writing and the way ideas are expressed."
The dark side of good penmanship
And then there's the argument for not setting penmanship standards too high. David Marquis makes a good one.
I envy people with beautiful handwriting," said Marquis, a Lewiston contractor. "For me, having to write things by hand was the demise of my high school education. It really is too hard for some of us to keep hold of a creative thought while writing it out neatly. I went to college at 28 and discovered the word processor. Made the dean's list. Handwriting held me back. I spent so much damn time trying to write neatly that I could not communicate effectively. Now I can write it quickly, read it, edit it and put it out there for all it's worth.
"I do believe we all need to learn to write," Marquis said. "But the emphasis on it as an art form should be at the college level."
But if neat (or even pretty) script isn't that important, why are there people who are paid professionals at the art form? Vivian Matkivich of Auburn mulls this, waxes poetic and hits me with a word I've never heard before.
"I am sure someone cared very much about the demise of proper cuneiform, and even today calligraphers may be found for hire for wedding invitations and such," she said. "As someone who has trouble reading even my own scribbles, I do support teaching remedial cursive for professional pen and ink note takers. But I am pretty sure kids can type faster and much more legibly on their iPads and electronic tablets than their grandparents could ever write a post card that went out with a postage stamp."
Since I started writing this lengthy piece on the (maybe) lost art of handwriting, I received three more letters from Betsy Way. Some of them are three pages long, but her neat cursive never falters. I might stumble over a word here and there, but with the help of context, I can always get it pinned down.
Betsy's thoughts on the matter are always interesting. I should probably get around to writing her a letter back.
"A handwritten letter or note is so personal," she said. "Just the fact that someone will take the time and effort to sit down and write something in a letter is almost unheard of these days. Just send an email, or a text, or whatever is the way most people do any sort of communication these days. No need to buy a paper, or a book, or anything in print, 'cause you can get it online in a instant. I have high school friends that I still write to, and it's a wonderful feeling to get a letter in the mail and sit down with your favorite beverage, whatever it may be, and actually read their news."