I vividly recall spending a great deal of time in fourth grade learning how to duplicate the Zaner Bloser cursive alphabet that hung on neat green cards at the front of the classroom. The E’s and the Z’s were the hardest and unfortunately the S’s also gave me grief, a terrible irony since my first name begins with that letter. I aimed to please especially since my teacher insisted that we master the swirls and the curly Q’s of the letters until we might have been able to forge checks for the inventor of that handwriting style. All in all I got fairly good but never really managed to make a decent looking Z. Years later when I was confident enough to be boldly independent I began to write with my own take on the letters that gave me the most fits. The result was quite legible and I have often received compliments from people who marvel at how well I mastered the art of cursive.
I have learned that over time schools slowly but surely dropped the handwriting component of education seeing it as an unnecessary waste of time. One of the few states still requiring that skill is Massachusetts. I know many highly intelligent and literate young boys and girls who are unable to read a document written in cursive. They are also only able to sign their names in block printing form. Even though I realize that fewer and fewer people actually sit down to scribe their thoughts by hand these days I believe that it is still a necessary component of a well rounded education. Perhaps today’s children don’t need the exacting practice that I received but they should at the very least be capable of signing their own names with a cursive flourish. Even if they never write a full text in old school handwriting it seems important that they at be able to translate the lettering of historical documents and read their contents.
I suppose that many of the old ways are quickly disappearing. Few practice the age old art of letter writing. Why would anyone choose to expend so much time and effort scrawling words on a blank page and then sending them afar by a mail system that takes days to deliver when they have the capability of jotting down an email, a text, a post, or a tweet that arrives in seconds? For today’s young it no doubt seems ridiculously old fashioned to communicate the way grandma did. There probably is some merit in eschewing the ways of yesteryear and instead being utterly modern. Still I sense that something quite special is going the way of the dinosaur as we use less and less stationary and more and more strokes on a keyboard.
About the same time in my youth that I was learning how to create beautiful reproductions of the Zaner Bloser alphabet I also practiced letter writing. It seemed a somewhat useless exercise to me because I really didn’t know anyone who lived far enough away to merit a written communiqué from me. I often sent brief greetings to my grandparents who lived in Arkansas but I never really knew if they appreciated my sentiments. My grandmother was illiterate and my grandfather was far too busy to write a response to my childish meanderings. The process was frustrating to me and felt more like work than an enjoyable past time. That was before I got my first pen pal.
I don’t exactly recall how it came about but I found myself with the name and address of a girl my age who lived in Kyoto, Japan. It was thrilling to dash off a letter to her in which I introduced myself and told her as much about life in Houston as I was able. I waited for what seemed like forever and one day an air mail letter arrived in my mailbox. The message inside was written on beautiful onion skin paper that was as light as a feather. My pen pal told me much about her life in a land faraway and I was enchanted. We wrote back and forth with agonizing waits in between communications. Back then getting a letter from Houston, Texas to Kyoto, Japan took a great deal of time. The long silence between our letters to each other only made the process that much more exciting. I never knew when I would open my mailbox to find the red and blue outlined air mail envelope that immediately told me that my friend from Kyoto had written to me once again.
Along the way we sent small gifts to one another. My favorite from her was a book of photographs of Kyoto. I fell in love with the idea of one day traveling to Japan to meet with her but as such things often do, our letters became fewer and fewer until one day there were no more. I’ve often wondered what became of that beautiful dark haired girl whose image I remember but whose name has escaped my memory. I hope that life has been good to her and I’d like to think that our childish bantering meant as much to her as it meant to me.
My letter writing took a vacation for a time. My grandparents had moved back to Houston and I knew of nobody else who might enjoy a handwritten update. The only practice that I got in writing letters was in English class. Eventually my German teacher gave each of us a pen pal from Germany. I was somewhat surprised when I was assigned a young man who was in high school like I was. His name was Hansjorg Bee and I almost fainted when I first saw his photograph because he was quite handsome. The two of us decided that I would compose my letters in German and he would write his in English so that we might practice becoming more fluent in the languages that we were attempting to master. I was a bit insulted when Hansjorg eventually asked me to stick with English because my German was so bad but I have to admit that it was much easier than struggling with the grammar and vocabulary of a language that was still somewhat new to me.
In many ways our communications became flirtatious and daring in the ways of teenagers. We sent flattering photos of ourselves back and forth and Hansjorg even invited me to come to visit him so that he might take me to his favorite mountain top. At one point he sent me a bracelet with his name engraved on it and as his romantic tone became more aggressive I panicked and began ignoring his letters and pleas for news. He soon got the message and I never heard from him again.
I read historical tracts that contain old time letters and I so love the details and descriptions included in them. It seems that even the most common of people put so much effort into their communications. They are in fact quite beautiful and reading some of them literally brings me to tears. They remind me of letters that I received from a high school friend who went to college outside of Texas. He would write about once a month to tell me of his adventures. The prose that he composed was almost poetic. I could picture the world of his university as clearly as if he had been sending photographs. He was able to chronicle his daily life in such a way that I felt that I was there. It was quite lovely to receive his updates and I have often thought of those communications as being the perfect examples of what good letters would be.
I haven’t received a handwritten letter from anyone in a very long time nor have I sent one to anybody that I know. I suppose that it is only appropriate that we adjust to the modern ways and move on without regrets. Nonetheless, there was something so special and so personal about receiving a text written in a person’s own distinctive hand. It still believe that there is a place for handwriting and letter writing even in our fast paced world. I hate to think that in the future all of our knowledge of individuals will be found in block letters contained in an electronic cloud.