Friday, February 14, 2014

Like another language

After my grandmother died, my mother found letters that had been sent from Poland many years previously. Mom had spoken Polish as a child, but she never learned to read the language. She asked an older relative to translate the letters for her. Grandma had come to America alone when she was 16, settling in Toledo. She never saw her family again. The letters, which had petered out after a few years, were from them.

Much more recently, my wife read some letters sent to her own parents over the years. They were all handwritten in English and, for the most part, easy in read. Yet it occurred to me that, for so many young Americans, family letters like these would be unreadable. Like my mother they would need someone older to read them for them, someone to explain what they said.

Cursive writing is a dying discipline in public schools. State tests don't require it and most people no longer need it in their daily lives, so schools don't see a need to teach it. Last weekend my sister told me about her experiences registering voters in Minnesota. The law requires prospective voters to sign their names, but teenagers registering to vote for the first time often didn't know how to sign their names. She had been given no guidance as to how to handle this situation, but she knew she could accept an X for illiterate voters, so why not a printed name for those who were literate but didn't know how to sign their names? She asked the teens to print their names just as they appear on their driver's licenses.

I should be the last person to lament the failure of schools to teach cursive writing. I hate to write in cursive and always have. Even I can't read what I write. My printing is not much better. I love keyboards.

In fact, I credit the typewriter with making a writer out of me. Through eight years of elementary school, I hated writing and had no clue I might be any good at it. My teachers certainly gave no indication that I had any ability in this area. Early in the summer after eighth grade, my parents returned from a shopping trip with a portable typewriter, and my life changed almost immediately. I loved watching words appear in type, but I had no interest in copying somebody else's words. I wanted to see my own words appear on paper. So I became a writer. By the end of the summer I was turning out stories, poems and even a weekly satirical newspaper, all typed on that Smith-Corona. My ninth-grade English teacher praised my work. Yet I continued to struggle with in-class essays right through college. I would have loved to have been able to use a computer in class.

I might as well have never learned to write in cursive, but I certainly am glad I learned how to read it.

The Tampa Bay Times recently reported on a cake decorator in Tampa who writes beautifully in cursive. Yet she must reconsider when her cakes are intended for children because so many of them now can't read a simple Happy Birthday! when it's written in cursive. It's like another language.

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