Tuesday, April 03, 2007

It's such a strange strain on you

We had spelling tests in the first grade, on unerasable, columnar papers wide enough for a dotted and nested number, a word, and the teacher’s marking. In the second grade, we had vocabulary assignments where you got to know one word really well—spelling, meaning, sentence, picture. Our class had a recurring segment in which, if you brought in a new pair of homophones—I/eye—the teacher would add them to a list on the bulletin board—you/ewe, we/wee, die/dye. Special honors were conferred on whoever found the most, and while I was a serious competitor, the most shocking assertion of identity and difference I can still recall was a classmate’s discovery, the triple surface of rain/rein/reign, a revelation that expanded most those minds that saw a word’s sense in its shape. That year, the word “cursive” began to circulate in the classroom, usually paired with some adverb of future time. I knew it that it referred to some pending life-change, some special status-transforming knowledge, before I knew what it denoted or entailed. We learned the characters as units, and by the third grade we were stringing them in single lines on pulpy, horizontally oriented sheets ruled in blue. Soon our most important compositions were to be submitted in cursive, for the elaborate, rule-governed script showed our attunement to the claims of authority, and maybe even that we had infused our writing with care. Calligraphy was offered as a special after-school course which, like French and Violin, students’ parents had to pay for—a prospect that horrified me greatly—and its advanced loops and gradations seemed to perfect the aesthetic and rhetorical tendencies inherent in cursive. I never learned to write beautifully—my hand was dark, compressed, and flowless—and I abandoned cursive as soon as we were allowed to return to block letters sometime in junior high. This was a victory not just for physiological freedom but for words themselves, the recovery of their true alphabetic face from maniacal involutions of line as the cramped, undulating, doodled signatures resolved into simple parts neatly combined.


Post a Comment

<< Home