Handwriting

Sep 3, 2018

I vividly remember sitting in a dim school auditorium my junior year of high school, pencil positioned to take the PSAT when all test-takers were required to copy out a pledge promising that no cheating would take place. The requirement? The pledge had to be written in cursive. One by one, students’ hands went up as they asked, “How do you write in cursive?” “How do you make a capital ‘i’?” and “Are all the letters supposed to be connected?”

Cursive has become a lost art. The handwriting our grandmothers once used to jot down a recipe on the back of a grocery list has now become a font on our computers that is used for only the most ornate services—because who except the trained professional knows how to do that now? Cursive handwriting is introduced typically in third grade, the same year in which—in public schools—standardized testing is required. Teachers, whose jobs depend on standardized test scores, hone in on the reading and mathematics standards that will be tried on those fateful days marked “testing,” and handwriting is relegated to the “if-we-have-time” portion of lesson plans. After all, what use is cursive? Most people can’t read it, and if we need it, that’s what the computer is for.

A year ago, I was asked to tutor four elementary school children in cursive handwriting. The prospect of spending six hours a week teaching a seven year old, a nine year old, an eleven year old, and a twelve year old how to slant their letters and form loops with the correct width didn’t seem the most glamorous, let alone the most important subject for me to teach, but since I enjoy handwriting myself, I began the job. And this job has become a living and vibrant sermon for me that I won’t likely forget, answering the question: How is handwriting good for the soul?

It teaches that rules are beautiful things.

Mortimer Adler, in How to Read a Book, wrote this about rules:
You cannot know rules you do not know. Nor can you acquire an artistic habit–any craft or skill–without following rules. The art as something that can be taught consists of rules to be followed in operation. The art as something learned and possessed consists of the habit that results from operating according to the rules.

Handwriting is an art with strict rules. The Spencerian, Zaner-Bloser, Palmer, Copperplate, and D’Nealian methods each have different but specific rules. The Spencerian method—an old, most ornate method that is used by some Charlotte Mason educators—has upwards of forty pages of rules with each letter of the lower and upper case alphabets assigned to its own paragraph of rules. These are not vague rules, but rather an impressive word-collection of angles, widths, arm movements, postures, and degrees of shading. And that is only one of the methods of handwriting.

Handwriting is based on strict guidelines; a letter is either correct or incorrect. If it is not correct, than it must be corrected. The process can be monotonous, but the result is beautiful. My handwriting students learned what Mortimer Adler wrote, that an art cannot be learned without learning and possessing and internalizing the rules. They know if the loop of their capital “G” is too wide, they know if it is that they must fix it, and they know that when they do, they will have a letter that is both correct and beautiful.

Handwriting has, unfortunately, been dubbed monotonous and boring. Rules, too, are seen as monotonous and boring. I believe—and have seen—that handwriting can be a beautiful lesson in the school that we all must be part of, the school that teaches what Sir Philip Sydney wrote: “Draw in thy beams and humble all thy might / to that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be.” It is only under a yoke that we find freedom; it is only under the law that we experience the beauty of grace.

It teaches self-control and discipline.

Handwriting is a mastering of fine motor skills. Flourishes, slants, and loops all require precise movements that must be practiced over and over again. At the beginning of my experience as a handwriting teacher, my students would glaze over at the prospect of a page of lowercase “a”s to practice. How come we take so much time on one letter? Why is it important? Why do I need to re-do this word three times over just because my letters are not consistently slanted? As time went on and as they got more and more used to the habit of disciplined practice, they began to take it up for themselves. If the curve of their “s” wasn’t satisfactory to them, they would ask me to make them a practice sheet to trace. It became not just a rule, but a habit, something that was important to them.

This takes an extraordinary amount of self-control and discipline that I wish I had in all areas of life. Their personal insistence on a correctly formed letter and their dedication to reach that goal showed a deeper heart attitude that extends far beyond the pages of script.

It teaches a relish for a slower pace.

It is a well-known fact for anyone who has practiced or taught handwriting that good handwriting cannot be done quickly. While it seems easier to rush through a page to get it done, these students swiftly learned that it must be re-done and corrected, taking even more time. After quite a few experiences like this, I soon saw that they initiated the practice of taking more time to do one page. Now this is not exactly consistent; like any normal child, they do still like to see how fast one page can get done. But at the same time, they recognize by experience that good things take time.

Doesn’t this teach us something of the infinite patience of God? When we learn that patience is a virtue which results in something good, doesn’t it cause us to understand, even just a smidgen more, how God can delight in His own long-suffering for the joy that is at the end? Could it teach us and our students a little more of the now-and-not-yet aspect of our earthly lives?

It teaches us to take joy and satisfaction in beauty.

My favorite part of teaching handwriting is when one of my students writes a letter and then sits back with both a surprised and satisfied smile and says, “That is one good ‘j.'” Handwriting gives the thoughtful student a chance to take pleasure and satisfaction in well-done work, in beauty.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, details the importance of not just using, but loving words. She writes,

[T]here is, in all of us, a hunger for words that satisfy—not just words that do the job of conveying requests or instructions or information, but words that give a pleasure akin to pleasures of music. . .We see and hear them the way poets do, as having vitality and delightfulness independent of their utility.

It’s been a precious and convicting thing for me to watch these young students be satisfied with the beauty of a well-formed letter and a well-written word. How often do I sit back looking at the goodness around me and let it satisfy me in a way that spills over into joy? In City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge’s main character, a young girl named Henrietta, muses, “In this beautiful world that God had made, joy was a duty.” That kind of duty-bound joy that surprises us can truly fill us with satisfaction.

An appreciation for good rules, the habit of self-control, delight in a slower pace, a pleasing fulfillment in beauty. . . aren’t these all things that are sorely lacking in the world around us? Isn’t this something that our younger generation—and ourselves—are needing to learn and internalize? Isn’t it merciful of God to teach us these great and weighty things in something as ordinary as handwriting?

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Emily Brigham

Emily Brigham

Emily Brigham is a student at the University of North Florida pursuing early childhood education and sacred music. Elsewhere, she is a church musician and busker (it’s a real word—look it up!). Her current instrument count includes piano, violin, guitar, and mandolin.

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