The cur­sive ob­sta­cle course for fumbly fin­gers

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

IT WAS the ter­ror of ev­ery school­boy. School­girls, it seemed, coped far bet­ter with its rigours.

It was called the Cur­sive Hand­writ­ing Chart. And an of­fi­cial in the Early Child­hood Ed­u­ca­tion sec­tion of the Eastern Cape Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment as­sures me it re­mains in use, still strik­ing fear and de­spair into the hearts of the young.

Ev­ery class in the many ju­nior schools I at­tended – in Zam­bia, Aus­tralia and South Africa, in English, Afrikaans and dual medium – shared this teach­ing aid. It was a large, lam­i­nated wall chart that showed how each let­ter of the al­pha­bet should be writ­ten, in both lower case and cap­i­tals, as well as hav­ing a sen­tence to il­lus­trate how the let­ters joined to form words.

The Afrikaans sen­tence en­graved on my mind was “Ons gee al­tyd net ons aller beste”. Which trans­lates, equally daunt­ingly in English, to “We al­ways give only our very best”.

I knew this not be true of me. How­ever du­ti­ful my in­ten­tions, my cur­sive was a Jack­son Pol­lock-like ren­di­tion, al­beit in mono­chrome, of swirls and whirls, blobs, smears and smudges. This was to the de­spair of my long-suf­fer­ing pri­mary school teach­ers – kind and pa­tient women.

It was also to my own pri­vate de­spair, at least while in grade school. For some rea­son, de­spite the ev­i­dence to the con­trary in the form of older pupils around me, I some­how con­vinced my­self I would be al­lowed to leave this hated school as soon as I had mas­tered read­ing and writ­ing.

So I de­ter­minedly soared ahead at read­ing, but my cur­sive writ­ing sucked. Whether it was with a pen­cil, a dip­ping pen, a ball­point and even­tu­ally a foun­tain pen, the best I could achieve was a hig­gledyp­ig­gledy scrawl, hu­mil­i­at­ing for me and il­leg­i­ble to the reader.

In con­trast, my fa­ther’s hand­writ­ing was reg­u­lar, with trun­cated tall- and drop-let­ters, as if he had taken se­ca­teurs to them. Con­se­quently, his sen­tences rip­pled briskly across the page, each word, de­pend­ing on length, ei­ther a choppy pool or a river.

My mother’s hand­writ­ing was small and neat. Such leg­i­bil­ity may have been a func­tion of her al­ways con­sid­er­ate na­ture, or sim­ply a func­tion of the fact that, since she had the parental duty of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the chil­dren when they were away from home, I was just ac­cus­tomed to de­ci­pher­ing it.

My sis­ter’s writ­ing I can­not now pic­ture, although I would eas­ily iden­tify it among ex­am­ples from half a dozen other scribes. Maybe be­cause of be­ing left-handed, she has a fas­ci­nat­ing fa­cil­ity at “mir­ror writ­ing” – writ­ing back­wards, from right to left – with the same flu­ency that she can write an or­di­nary sen­tence.

The writ­ing of the next gen­er­a­tion, that of my daugh­ters, is murkier. Be­cause of the re­morse­less usurp­ing of old-fash­ioned writ­ing by typed tex­ting and emails, I would to­day strug­gle to un­earth an ex­am­ple that is less than two dozen years old. All I can re­mem­ber from their school­days is big, cheer­ful, airy let­ter­ing.

And therein lies the rub. In a dig­i­tal world, the abil­ity slav­ishly to repli­cate cur­sive – “Care­ful now, Wil­liam! Light strokes up, heavy strokes down” – is about as use­ful a tal­ent as be­ing able to start the braai by rub­bing sticks to­gether. There are more ef­fi­cient al­ter­na­tives and even if you do need to pen a shop­ping list for your sig­nif­i­cant other, block let­ters surely suf­fice?

Not ac­cord­ing to South Africa’s ped­a­gogues. They are em­phatic that hand­writ­ing ex­er­cises are crit­i­cal for per­cep­tual and mo­tor skills de­vel­op­ment.

Not ev­ery­one has a com­puter, so pupils need to be able to write quickly and clearly. That is why hand­writ­ing is sup­pos­edly taught from year one through to ma­tric, although all the teach­ers I spoke to con­ceded that after ju­nior school, it’s pretty much up to the kids to find their own way.

There is other sup­port for what the aca­demics call chi­ro­graphic writ­ing. A re­cent 10-coun­try study by the Lon­don School of Economics found that univer­sity stu­dents are not aban­don­ing pen and pa­per.

The ex­cep­tions were the Rus­sians, Bul­gar­i­ans and Finns, who far pre­fer com­put­ers to pa­per, ap­par­ently be­cause there is less of a tra­di­tion of hand­writ­ing and read­ing ac­tual books.

For the oth­ers, while dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies are em­braced for their speed and ef­fec­tive­ness, writ­ing by hand is held to have spe­cial qual­i­ties that can­not be matched by ma­chine writ­ing. Many stu­dents claimed that hand­writ­ten notes led to bet­ter re­ten­tion of in­for­ma­tion than when typed.

Ital­ian stu­dents, clearly ro­man­tics, cited the sen­sory qual­i­ties of cur­sive, in­clud­ing the fra­grance of the pa­per as it is inked. For many, it was about what they were writ­ing: dig­i­tal me­dia was pre­ferred for aca­demic work be­cause of its speed and leg­i­bil­ity. Pri­vate emo­tions and in­ti­mate feel­ings were best con­veyed by hand­writ­ing and pa­per.

For me, how­ever, the Cur­sive Hand­writ­ing Chart will al­ways evoke a lit­tle shud­der of re­vul­sion – a re­minder of 12 years’ hard labour, with no time off for good be­hav­iour.

Fol­low WSM on Twit­ter @ TheJaun­dicedEye

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