TO THE LETTER!
A short history how a fifteen cent pen launched a career over 50 years ago.
Before I show and tell what this is all about, I hasten to add an astonishing fact. Almost ANYONE can learn what I do.
Many who know about my skill, salivate to learn it but have an unmovable notion that it takes already-pretty handwriting, some unlabeled natural talent, or a streak of mystical artistic ability to be one who ‘writes pretty.’ Some are convinced it’s inherited. Most are convinced they could never learn it. All are wrong.
It’s an acquired skill. I cannot play the piano, but confident I could learn if I wanted to. People who cannot play a tune or vocalize a note can learn to be great pianists and singers. Many acclaimed and accomplished individuals have been taught their skill by someone who had perfected the technique and was qualified to share the benefit of their knowledge and experience.
So it is with Calligraphy, be it with an ink pen and paper, a marker, a reservoir pen, a wood chisel in wet cement, or a dental drill used to make elegant script on a piece of crystal or stainless steel or a$2000. bottle of wine. It is an acquired skill.
People who have a burning desire or pressing need to learn what I do become amazing artisans because they applied their passion and determination. They learn the method, memorize the letters, and know them like the back of their hand. They develop the muscle memory that’s a vitally important part of the process. That takes time but I’ve seen people blossom and become what they visualized and dreamed about. Those who do believe, put on their best attitude, and slog through the unpaved road of practice and the associated bumps and blundering, turn out work that changes their life just as it did mine.
My story has 26 characters. Each is an individual. Some short. Some tall. Some thick. Some thin. They’re quite involved with each other and weave their own magic under my direction. They are part and parcel in all our daily lives for millions across the planet who speak and write in English. The alphabet and how I interact with it is the core of my livelihood and activity every day.
Virginia Baines was my third grade teacher at Robert E. Lee Elementary in Hugo, Oklahoma. She was the quintessential old maid school teacher with long hair propped up in a bun with some ornamental pin or decoration protruding from one side to keep in place. My best guess all these years later is that she was about 40 years old….looked 75, but then I was only 8 at the time. She had a bad case of buck teeth that caused a slight signature lisp and she always had a white ivory cameo at the base of her neck, tied with a wide black ribbon. She wore long dresses every day. This was 1949.
Above her blackboard spanning the entire width of her classroom, behind her desk, was a series of thick, dark green cards, each about 5 inches tall and 36 inches long. A simple cursive alphabet was printed from A to Z. Beside each capital letter there was the corresponding lower case character. Never paid much attention to it until Miss Baines announced on the last day before our 2-week Christmas vacation that we had to learn all 52 letters by January 2 when we returned to school.
In the process of that announcement that I thought bordered on cruel and unusual punishment, she gave each of us a bound 9 “ x 12” workbook, landscape format, of those letters. Her assignment was to learn every character over the holidays. Though I don’t recall anyone else expressing dismay about the ill-timed assignment, I was thoroughly ticked. Another word is a better fit but I’ll spare you that.
The book had a few letters on the left side of each page as examples. We were to use a soft pencil and make the same characters all across every one of the pages in that 3/4” thick workbook. It certainly dulled the joy of a long holiday, especially during a near-blizzard of a winter storm and snowfall when we were to christen a brand new wooden sled with bright metal runners. I did manage to take a few neighborhood hills, making serious, fast tracks all the way to the bottom.
I complied with Miss Baines’ assignment and turned in a full book that cold January day in 1950. We were off and running with cursive writing that we were required to use on all assignments in all subjects from then on. Looking back, that’s exactly as it should have been.
Sadly, few schools in our nation now teach cursive handwriting to elementary students. It’s all about the keyboard. Well and good but handwriting has been a part of our culture for centuries and it is literally fading away as many young students and adults can barely read cursive from the rest of us, much less write it.
To be continued…..