Cursive, Circa 1948
The memories run deep. Third grade. First day. New shoes. Stiff jeans. Flannel shirt. Cowlick. Fresh paint and polished wooden floors; the odors mingled and intoxicated. A wall of windows, shades pulled high, filtered sunlight through leafy maples swelling with autumn color. Anticipation ran high.
We stared at our teacher, Miss Riley, as she wrote on the blackboard with chalk, her body half turned, hand steady; her letters, all connected, flowed effortlessly across the blackboard. Hieroglyphics? I knew not.
She faced us. “Cursive,” she said, her face serious. “It’s how you will write from now on. Only ignorant bank robbers print their demands.” She offered a sample: I have a gun. It is loaded and cocked. I will shoot you through the heart if you sound the alarm. Give me all the money.
I slid down in my seat and held my breath.
She smiled. Miss Riley was the prettiest woman I had ever seen. “Of course none of you will ever write such a note. You are above such stupidity. Starting this morning you will elevate yourselves to the highest form of handwriting.”
She pointed to the individual letters above the blackboard and demonstrated how each was properly formed. We copied her on our wide-lined paper, yellow pencils still foreign in our hands. She walked about. Touched our hair. Patted our shoulders. Dished out soft words. Like a seasoned golf pro, she changed our grips.
Weeks later, after the leaves trembled, fell, and Mr. Wind toyed with them, the blinds were dropped to conserve the heat. We trooped in noisily each morning, our faces red, eyes shiny with the cold. We hung our coats on brass pegs in the back. At recess, my nose running, I heard raucous honking high overhead. Shaded my eyes to see the perfect V as the silvery geese slid south. They can write too, I marveled.
Miss Riley piled her hair high. Wore lipstick every day. Fancy dresses. Her smile faded if we did not hush and attend her right away. She taught us to write letters: Dear Auntie Joyce, Thank you for the book about Tarzan. I’ve already read ten pages. It’s interesting so far. Tell Uncle Mo I like the part about the shipwreck best. Yours Truly, Johnny
Dear Sir: Please send me the String On Fire Yo Yo. I’ve enclosed fifteen cents and ten Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box tops. Sincerely, Johnny
Somehow the girls mastered cursive easier. In comparison, mine seemed bulky, awkward, ungainly. I admired theirs, hid my own.
At home, mother’s writing flowed like warmed chocolate frosting. I copied hers. Practiced. Compared. Her hand became mine. Over time, mine mirrored hers. Came in handy later when I needed her signature in high school. Johnny could be a naughty boy on occasion.
First in the military, and then later in college, people sometimes remarked: Your writing is beautiful. It’s like a girl’s. Not offended, I basked in the compliments. We weren’t talking about my butt.
A lifetime later, standing in front of my students, I would sometimes print the day’s assignment in chalk on the blackboard, and then, just to mess with them, duplicate it in elegant cursive beside the print. Oh, yes I did. They knew not. Bank robbers all.