The vanishing art of handwriting

As a child I spent years practicing how to write words on a sheet of paper. Aside from English and history classes, every homework assignment through college was done with a pencil in my hand.

Now, just about the only time I hold a writing implement is when I need to draw something on a whiteboard. This usually consists of some boxes and arrows to illustrate how data flows through computer systems and some hastily scratched out letters to annotate what each box does.

These bits of handwritten words often brings smirks to the faces of my colleagues, since they are illegible, even to me. It’s been suggested that my handwriting would be a great form of cryptography.

To be fair, my handwriting was never that great. I remember in 7th grade when my English teacher Mr. DeFusto walked over to me, handed me my graded homework assignment and said, “Jeremy, if your handwriting doesn’t improve, I will fail you.”

I did work on my handwriting and passed the class, but I’ve never found it an effective way to get my ideas onto paper. Freshman year of high school, I took a touch-typing class and found my preferred medium. A few months in I had already cracked 70 words per minute (you had to reach 40 words per minute by the end of the year to get an A), so they just let me finish early.

Thankfully, the world has moved to electronic communication, so I have had to rely less and less on writing. Virtually everything I do involves a keyboard. While mobile devices have shed their physical keyboards, the stylus-handwriting method used by the old Palm Pilot never took off. Auto-correct has kept virtual keyboards alive.

Sure, I do still use a pen here and there. On the rare occasion I need to address an envelope, I pick one up. And I’ve been known to write a physical check on rare occasions. But mostly, handwriting is relegated to the whiteboard.

That is, until a few weeks ago, when I started writing a daily note to my daughter, Ayelet.

She’s in kindergarten, and she was going through a phase of difficult drop-offs. She was happy in the classroom, but she never wanted me to leave and would clutch tightly to my arm. The teachers assured me that she was fine as soon I left, but it was a huge battle to get her to let go and engage in the classroom activities.

One day, I asked her what would help her have a good drop-off.  She thought about it a moment and then said, “I want you to write me a note.”

This was a puzzling choice, since she is just at the very beginning of learning to read, but I figured I would try it. I wrote a little note about how she likes mermaids and drew a crude mermaid picture (my artwork is even worse than my handwriting). I gave it to her in the classroom, and true to her word, she let me go without a fuss.

So, we started doing notes every day. I would write something silly that happened that morning or the previous evening and a silly little stick-figure to go with it. Each day I give it to her as she walks into the classroom and tell her what it says.  She smiles, shows it to her teachers, and runs off.

Yesterday, we were running late, and I didn’t have time to write one before we left. I promised her I would write it in the classroom, so once inside I grabbed a marker and started to write as she watched.

And then Ayelet started to criticize.

“You can write better than that!”

“Take your time! Do a good job!”

“Why are writing so fast? Slow down.”

I looked at her, baffled. Yes, I was rushing because I needed to get to work, but I wasn’t going *that fast*. This was just how my letters look. Sure, I don’t have the best handwriting, but this was a step up from my usual whiteboard chicken scratch.  I really was doing the best I could.

One of my handwritten notes for Ayelet. As my handwriting goes, this is a pretty good example.

One of my handwritten notes for Ayelet. As my handwriting goes, this is a pretty good example.

I’m sure these “suggestions” are what she has heard from me and her mother and her teachers about showing good work, and she was echoing it back to me. Here I was at the age of 38, back in an elementary school, with someone criticizing my handwriting.

Ayelet is already learning handwriting, but I suspect that her reliance on it will be even less than mine. I doubt she’ll ever learn cursive, and iPads are already at use in the classroom.

Handwriting seems to be headed down the path of other lost skills, like memorizing phone numbers or reading maps.

With my poor handwriting, that’s probably a good thing.

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6 Responses to The vanishing art of handwriting

  1. Yep! Technology is great; but extremely altering. Effort needs to be put forth to hold on to some of these don’t you think?

  2. Enrique de la Huelga says:

    Not just writing cursive, but also reading it: I’m always enchanted by manuscripts, but my kids have difficulty deciphering unfamiliar handwriting. I’ve bought them some delightful books that—pretending to be the annotated discoveries of archeologists and egyptologists—are filled with footnotes, annotated sketches, and letters home; I’m asked to read those parts because they see it as just another set of hieroglyphics.

  3. Kate sussman, your mom's friend says:

    Ah yes, Tony DeFusto. He was my mentor and guide, but yes, he could be way harsh. But…I think Ayelet is right. Handwriting is a familiar, even intimate means of communication. You think you just scribbled a “nothing” of a note/cartoon about the knock-knock jokes, but I loved it, and I’ll bet Ayelet did too. So much more personal than type.

  4. Raj Antony says:

    Hi Jeremy, it’s so true ; couldn’t agree more. i guess, this well written(though not by hand :-)) blog may be one of her favorite blogs of yours when she grow up. well. thanks

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