The other day Jim-the-Landlord asked me if I had any stationery. "Not the little thank-you-note kind," he said. "I need to write a letter."
Boy, did he come to the right place. Since forever I have been a big fan of stationery: the higher the rag content, the better. I like the creamy vellum (which isn't really calf skin anymore—I think it's a petroleum product) and envelopes lined with another color paper.
Way before we communicated via the internet, many of us sprayed our own perfume on letters. We adored fountain pens and bottled ink, but bowed to progress when the cartridges came in. Washable blue for school—permanent black for important missives.
And sealing wax. Did you do this? You lit waxy-things and when the wax dripped into a blob where the envelope sealed, you stuck your initial brand in it. It was so romantic. That's what the ladies and lords did, and I'm sure, the princesses.
I hate to think what I wrote in those letters. The paper and ink will surely stand the test of time, but I fear the sentiments were interchangeable with those of any small-town girl trying to figure out who she was. I wanted to be a writer and you had to start somewhere.
I talked to a couple of 60-Somethings the other day and they felt the same way. When we wrote these letters we tried to make our writing look beautiful and personal. We practiced "the Perfect Palmer Method" of writing cursive whenever we could. Artistic urges combined with thoughts and ideas and the physical push-pull of writing itself. It was a way to express individuality, as well as a way to connect with someone you cared about.
You may not realize it, but the teaching of cursive in Indiana Schools is now considered optional. It's optional almost everywhere. The powers-that-be have concluded that it's more important for kids to type with their thumbs than to write in the manner of say . . . our founding fathers. Abraham Lincoln didn't "print" the Gettysburg Address. Are we educating a generation that won't be able to read it the way it was written?
Attention was drawn to this problem recently when Rachel Jeantel, who speaks and understands three languages—Hatian Creole, Spanish, and English—testified at the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. When an attorney asked if she could read a letter in court, she bowed her head and murmured with embarrassment, "I don't read cursive."
Chances are she'd never been taught cursive. Reminds me of a story about a U.S. cavalry officer confronting a native American. "You can't even read," said the soldier. "It's not that I can't read," said the Indian chief. "Nobody ever taught me how to read."
See what I mean?
I recently contacted Indiana State Senator Jean Leising (R-SD42) who is also concerned about this issue. (Full disclosure: I emailed her, though I suspect we would have exchanged lovely legible missives on very nice stationery.) Here's Sen. Leising's reply:
"Thank you for contacting me about cursive writing. I filed bills in the 2012 and 2013 sessions. Both years the bill passed the Senate, but failed to get a hearing in the House. Rep. Bob Behning, House Education Chair, is not supportive of my bill that would require cursive be taught in all accredited schools in Indiana. Common Core would allow the state to add up to 15 percent to the required curriculum."
(The Common Core State Standards initiative, a plan devised by the nation's governors and backed by the Obama administration, seeks to set a uniform standard for grades K-12).
Sen. Leising continues: "Under Supt. Tony Bennett, the Department of Education made cursive optional. Many schools have continued to teach cursive, but some have completely abandoned the subject. We will have individuals soon in the workplace that will not be able to read a note from their boss. Child psychologists say that cursive, which requires the connecting of letters from left to right, enhances a student's ability to spell, read, and write. I have not decided as to whether I will file the bill in the 2014 session."
Are the only kids who are going to learn to write in cursive going to Catholic or charter schools? Are we encouraging a bizarre class system in which only a few of us old fogies will be able to read grandma and grandpa's love letters, deeds, birth and death records, and the Declaration of Independence?
Here's another RRT (Really Radical Thought): Round up all those kids, all those hooligans, all those smarty-pants who think it's really cool to write stupid-looking marshmallow graffiti on boxcars, or park steps, or garage doors—and sentence them to a month of IAMPETH. Their next convention is Aug. 4-9, 2014, right around the corner in Indianapolis, Indiana.
IAMPETH is an international, non-profit association dedicated to practicing and preserving the beautiful arts of calligraphy, engrossing, and fine penmanship. Founded in 1949, it is the oldest and largest penmanship organization in the United States.
I know you can't really "round them up" but—are you listening judges?—when they're nabbed and convicted for scrawling those pitiful boxy, marshmallow letters—couldn't you at least require them to learn "cursive" while they're on probation? Perhaps it's not that they can't write beautifully; it's just that no one ever taught them how.
On the other hand, maybe this is a new job for the AARP crowd. We can set up little stands at the farmers' markets and read people's documents for them. Buck a paragraph? Three for two dollars?
Suggested Art Work: Handwritten (cursive) image of the Declaration of Independence or The Gettysburg Address.
There are also some amazing graffiti images on the net. You'll know what ones I mean, the lumpy ugly ones.