Finding nothing of ourselves
there was nothing about us at all
—Olive Senior, “Colonial Girls School”
In the house I currently live in with four other dudes, there are two white boards on which we leave written notes to each other. On the smaller, there is a short note I wrote in my scrawl last week listing foods my roommates should feel free to eat, and within that are two other notes written by one of my roommates, offering Snickers he had bought yesterday. What strikes me about these notes are the poor quality of both of our handwriting despite the drastically different identities my roommate and I inhabit. Other than being cisgenedered heterosexual men, my roommate and I have led very divergent lives. I grew up in an upper middle class Mestisx family in Belize and he, a white man, grew up in a working poor neighborhood in upstate New York. I have been in school forever whereas my roommate finished high school and then immediately started working in a series of factory jobs. And despite the fact that I put pen to paper everyday whereas my roommate does manual labor with glass and machinery all day, my penmanship has seemingly not benefited from all the previously described privileges nor the regularity of my practice, according to any of the measures described in Tamara Plakins Thornton’s Handwriting In America: A Cultural History. This led me to reflect on the period in which I took penmanship classes as a means of trying to situate myself into another conversation about United States history.
I took penmanship classes when I was in elementary school up until Standard 4 (the equivalent of 6th grade), which I remember because I was looking forward to being done with that aspect of my formal education. My entire educational life up to that point, I had been reading at a higher level than most of my peers, primarily due to the privilege of having more access to books and the opportunity to read as a leisure activity. Because of the way reading and writing were lumped together into the neat word literacy, I could not figure out why my proficiency reading was not enabling to write beautifully, completely ignoring the mechanics involved in writing that are absent in reading. At that time, I had a deep frustration with the difficulty I had in writing legibly in a way that felt comfortable for my hand. I was reminded of this when Plakins Thornton states that at the end of the 18th century “reading and writing were not two aspects of one skill but entirely distinct accomplishments, which were taught separately to different groups of people in different pedagogical settings for different ends” (Plakins Thornton 41). Although under different circumstances than late 19th century Americans, these differing ends were made to me at that age when I was never able to best receive a satisfactory answer regarding our need to write beautifully in a script that we only used within the penmanship classroom.
Cursive and overly prescriptive print scripts were seen as an essential part of our education, but the people teaching us that were not the ones who determined that that would be the case. Those that did were colonial educators from England, and the United States who arrived with curriculum that then became the foundation of education in Belize in the late 19th and early 20th century. Within that context then, did penmanship also exist to “reform the dangerous, assimilate the foreigner, and prepare all their charges for the limitations and regimentation of life and work after school” (Thornton 174). What would it even imply for Belizean natives to be considered foreign to even their own lands if other people were given the ability to dictate propriety to us? How has post-colonial pedagogy been altered to discard this aspect of education? Has that even been necessary on a conscious level given the ubiquity of digital computer writing platforms, which has diminished the desire for script writing? How have evolving writing technologies interceded in reorienting pedagogies that have been perpetuated in a previous composition model?
A few weeks ago, I received a prescription for physical therapy from a wonderful nurse practitioner who was unable to give me the prescription in person, leaving it to a colleague to give to me. On receiving it, I stood by the entrance of Syracuse University health services, and tried to decode the letters crashing into each other. Her penmanship worse than either me or my roommate’s, at least on this small square of paper likely written in the midst of attending to five other things the way I’d watch mi Mamá do in the hospital she works at, scribbling on the pad while walking between beds. It wasn’t until I arrived at the physical therapist’s office that I found out what the nurse practitioner had written when the assistant looked at the note for a moment, and said out loud ‘hip impingement.’ There is something to that professionalized decoding, to the privilege of being able to write illegibly and not be scorned for it that remains. In the context of teacher, I am regularly made fun of by students for my poor penmanship, never mind the difficulty in writing large letters. What does it say about how we view the roles of reader and script writer when we believe that there is more of an onus on the writer to ensure clarity as opposed to those contexts where the reader should be expected to do some decoding? What does the evolving use and teaching of handwriting show us about the impact of a now seemingly innocuous activity, and what contemporary composing technologies exists that could be considered analogous to handwriting for their seeming innocuousness that hide a system of control?