By: James F. O’Neil

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”  —Francis Bacon

Instead of math genes, I received an inordinate number of right-handed-ness-es: dexterities.  I received the keen sense of making precise o’s and p’s and q’s in 3rd grade cursive handwriting.  (I have no memory of writing skills in 1st and 2nd grades.)

In the upper right-hand corner of our wooden desktops was a hole that held a small glass bottle filled with ink.  (The small bottle was called an “inkwell.”  I don’t know what the small hole was called, other than “the small hole to put the inkwell in.”)

school desks


A handwriting teacher would appear once or twice a week.  She would stand before us, giving directions for a lesson.  As we began, she would walk down the aisle.  A ruler would hit a desk, then another, then closer.  I would sit properly, having my paper ready at the correct angle to my body, with my left hand across the top of the paper.  I was learning The Ruler Method.

wooden rulers


So I would pick up my ink pen, with pen point.  I proceeded to dip into the well of learning, then to scratch out my name.  Cursive.  Practice and practice upon the vanilla-colored paper with its graduated red and blue lines.  Dip, scratch.  Dip, scratch.

lined paper


[Note the paper facing LEFT]

Making motions with the pen, I copied from the board the letters the teacher had chalked on the lines painted onto the black slate.  Cursive letters, upper case and lower case.

Week after week, month after month after month, I perfected the letters of my name, scripting the J and O and N.  (I also fell in love with the Z, how it dropped down below the base line, taking up three lines, unlike the lowly e and others who got merely a half space.)



We children-students all wrote alike by the end of 3rd grade–except for the “lefties” who were dragging ink across their pages, ending up with ink on their left-writing hands, but still using ink from the right-side inkwell.  No discrimination then: all sat up the same way, the paper at the same angle on the desktop, facing to the left.  Otherwise…The Ruler.

By 8th grade, after six brutal Ruler-Years, I had been made in the image and likeness of one of Mr. Palmer’s Chosen Disciples.  I was tested, weighed, and found not wanting.  I was a Palmer-ist.  (“There is no value in any penmanship drill ever invented unless it is practiced with correct positions of body, arms, fingers, penholders, paper, and with exactly the right movement, and at exactly the right rate of speed.”  —

Then whatever happened to Palmer cursive? 

I learned of Zaner-Bloser as my own kids were learning cursive.  No more Palmer Method.  Then arrived a simplified handwriting, manuscript to cursive, with a mere tilt of the letter-making pen: D’Nealian, controversial, but well taught.  Taught early and easily by…no handwriting specialists anymore.  Not needed.  Gone, like the dodo bird.  Ancient.  Mysteriously vanished.  And today few care.   

“You write like a girl!” is not often heard anymore, as I sign my name.  More likely, “What nice handwriting you have.” 

I do all right now when I have a good gel pen or a fiber point. 

I had some good fountain pens, with “bladders,” and the cartridge types: Parker, Waterman, and, of course, Sheaffer. Then I experienced the quiet that came with the invention of the gliding roller-ball (with its bloppy ink), yet still have good Cross pens, which are too slow now, and require too much motor effort for arthritic fingers.  

Yet nothing has been able to match the grace and speed and style of my Palmerism as a gel-ink pen is able to do.  No refilling,  no “perfect” gold nib needed.

The gel pens scratch beautifully, making noise as I press out the thoughts-onto-paper, carefully or sloppily.  I even enjoy hearing cross outs and corrections.    

As I write, sometimes I am back in the 3rd grade (still aware of The Ruler).  I write and write, sitting as I was taught: left hand holding down my paper, right index finger near the tip of the pen, small/little finger resting on the desk supporting my hand–with the reddened indentation on the middle finger, holding the weight of my words.  This is pleasurable writing, personal writing. 

I am a happy writer.

Looking back, I am so glad I was taught by those demanding much.

And The Ruler Method?  An un-truth….  However, it makes good stories.  The ruler-in-the-hand was nothing more than a symbolic mace, held and carried (and threatening) as a sign of order and authority.  I never had my knuckles rapped in writing class.  The Protectors of the Ruler [Method] knew better: They did not want damaged disciples who might have been too swollen to copy notes or write spelling exercises.

“Blessed are those….”  I am blessed with good penmanship.  I was a good Disciple–and one who had a great Fear of the Ruler.  I learned well.  I can print, write, copy, and sign (especially my name, which I am so proud of and so want to be legible.)  The sound of my pen scratching out letters across a blue line pleasurably reminds me of the days of “hard” that turned into “easy”–and to handwriting success.

Cursive rules!

© James F. O’Neil  2013

Note:  As I write this, some states do not require public schools to teach cursive reading or writing.

Most adults–and college students–abandon cursive writing for a hybrid of mostly print letters joined occasionally in a cursive style.  (In 2012, handwriting teachers were surveyed at a conference hosted by Zaner-Bloser, the publisher of cursive textbooks.  Only 37 percent wrote in cursive; another 8 percent printed.  The majority, 55 percent, wrote a hybrid: some elements resembling print writing, others resembling cursive.) 

  1. Cursive well done is a beautiful art.

  2. The loss of the discipline required to learn cursive is a great misfortune for every young child. Not only did it teach us to write legibly, which is to everyone’s advantage, but it taught self-control, concentration and gave us a real sense of accomplishment at a very young age. The quiet tenacity required to attain the pride of penmanship serves us well as adults too. Intently focusing on the task at hand, until perfected, was a lesson well earned. We are all the poorer for its demise. Thank you for following my blog.

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