y penmanship teacher worried about my hand’s mistreatment of the letter “o.” My “o” looked like a deflated balloon, or so she said. Be firmer, she insisted. My “e” fared little better. In the word “eager” my first “e” seemed interested only in pouncing on neighboring “a” before knocking up helpless “g.” Crispness, said the teacher. Give each letter the character it deserves. Play no favorites.
Vowels troubled me more than consonants, maybe because of their centrality. What’s a life without vowels? A, E, I, O, U, repeated the penmanship teacher, asking each of us to walk to the blackboard and write them out, lower case, then upper.
The teacher occasionally called on a student named Vincent, who came from a faraway family. Vincent was the magician of letters, equally adept with vowels and consonants. He moved his chalk like crayon. “Vincent, spell your last name on the blackboard for the class,” said the teacher, all but forcing Vincent to show off, which he didn’t like.
S-z-c-z-e-r-b-i-a-k, he wrote. The first time he did this we snickered: So many letters in odd places, brittle and alien. The unknown made us jealous. “Vincent’s last name is of Polish origin. Words in Slavic languages depend on consonants as much as we depend on vowels. Thank you Vincent.” Vincent would then sit down and bow his head gently like a sad concert pianist. He didn’t seem to like his last name.
Slavic languages were those used in Eastern European countries, explained my father. “Those are the Soviet satellite countries.” I looked into the sky, as if waiting for consonants to pass.
I’d dream of nations of consonants alone, which did me little good in class. Asked to spell “cream,” I went to the blackboard and began the word with a “k.” All giggled. I sighed and began again, this time with a “c.” But the “c” banged into the “r,” compressing the rest of the letters into a jumble. “Take your time,” said my penmanship teacher. “Pretend you are writing a thank you note about a creamy chocolate bar.”
But no one gave me chocolate, I preferred caramel, and I mangled my three attempts. At home, my mother, a Pole who had learned English in her 40s, carefully took me through the loops, her soft hands loitering on mine, at least for a while. We’d begin with multiplication tables, to me an enormous and daunting mystery, and then move on to letters, which I found more restorative, even hopeful.
On good days I’d write whole clear sentences, the vowels and consonants at peace, and thank myself for having written something I could read. Soon my signature became legible, though after the “Ch” I’d rush everything to the right. My surname always yielded an elegant looking “W” after which came so much slashing gibberish.
“The way you write determines how you’re seen as a person,” said the penmanship teacher, who had blackboard under her spell. When she wrote “Carolyn,” the curve of her “C” made all the rest of the letters obedient. The “a,” “r,” and “o” seemed happy to get to the “l,” “y” and “n.” I swooned inside.
“One day,” she told us, “you boys and girls will need to write letters, sign documents, make arguments, and your persuasiveness will be judged not only by the strength of your statements but the clarity of purpose your penmanship demonstrates.”
But I never got it right. “Shows promise but needs considerable attention and work,” she wrote, saddening me, since penmanship lasted only one year, after which all were cut loose to scribble. I gradually took to writing in block letters, even capital letters, to ensure all would understand me. My first handwritten essay required 50 attempts and many broken pencil tips. Shavings from both pencil and eraser surrounded my desk. Most of thank contained only one mastered line, “Please accept my kind thanks” because “please” and “kind” were two words I’d figured out.
I never thought I’d write for a living let alone imagine a time when letters and words would be manufactured by machines, with humans as distracted middlemen and anything handwritten suddenly made ancient.
“Never underestimate the value of a well-written address,” said my penmanship teacher, to whom I promised myself forever. “And never, ever forget the beauty of a return address.” I never, ever did.