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Fresh Snow

December 24, 2012

Stella has an interesting walk, lovely to see from behind, in which on
every step she places one paw exactly in the print of the previous
step. It’s not really a walk but a liquid, rolling kind of lope
slightly faster than I can walk. Effortlessly, she pulls away.

I saw this in last week’s snow. It looks as if someone on a pogo
stick, with a paw print on the bottom, bounced along the trail through
the woods.

Fresh snow is a blank page for all kinds of marks—paw and claw prints,
tail marks, belly impressions, the sweep of wings as if birds were
making snow angels. Low-hanging branches swinging in the wind scribe a
kind of cursive in the snow.

I saved a recent article about cursive handwriting. Opinions and
practices in elementary education vary. Handwriting instruction
traditionally happens in grade school, although it could be revisited
by doctors and police officers, if I may presume to judge from my
prescriptions and summonses.

Most states leave cursive instruction optional, but California,
Georgia, and Massachusetts have reinstated a cursive requirement for
third grade. Cursive, if practiced, allows one fluidity and speed. The
trend in handwriting instruction is to stop at printing and move on to
keyboarding.

One wonders even about keyboarding now. Typing seems antiquated in an
age of texting or tapping out your notes on the screen of an iPad.

With the pressures of standardized testing, there is little margin for
practicing cursive, and even less motivation in a digital age. Some
teachers would prefer to teach students to read cursive rather than to
write it.

Proponents of cursive instruction have some possibly valid points
about fine motor skills that go beyond a sentimental attachment to
history or the development of identity and self-esteem.

I remember a time in the ‘80s when older Japanese lamented the growing
popularity of the Western knife and fork among youth, claiming that
the superiority of Japanese manufacturing was connected to the
dexterity gained from a lifetime of using chopsticks.

I wonder how the motor skills of keyboarding compare with those of
handwriting. They are certainly different. I find that writing a
letter by hand feels different from typing an email—the manner and
pace of composition and the process of thought all feel different.

I saved a second article about handwriting that asked “Is handwriting
worth saving?” It’s reflections centered on a book, “The Missing Ink:
The Lost Art of Handwriting” by Philip Hensher.

Only now, holding the articles side by side, did I notice an
interesting contrast. Each has a leading photograph showing a hand and
pen and page. The first article shows the familiar cramped student
hand, tightly holding the pen for control. The second shows a relaxed
adult hand—in fact, that of the article’s author, whose handwriting is
pretty nice despite her lamentations.

I also noticed that the adult held the pen between her thumb and two
fingers whereas the child held it between thumb and three fingers. I
used to hold my pen like the child and had good handwriting, but then
a grade-school teacher noticed and forced me into the three-finger
mode.

I took to going home sick until my mother asked what was going on. The
teacher remained adamant. Mom resolved it thus: “In school, write
their way. At home, write the way you want.” Problem solved.

My handwriting can be a typical scrawl under pressure or impatience,
but I still write much correspondence by hand, and at its best, and
most pleasurable, it flows is an easy lope like Stella’s.

I would trade standardized tests for more handwriting time any time.

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