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  • Sean Smith

The Writes of Man

In the photo at left, you can see what I'm pretty sure is my first attempt at journalism: a school report on the Great Blackout of 1965, of which I was a witness (we were living in Astoria, literally across the street from the big Con Edison plant), a day or so after it happened. Not exactly much reportorial enterprise on my part: I didn't go around interviewing neighbors, or seek comments from any local officials, but then again, who'd want to talk to some second-grade kid when there's a crisis afoot? Anyway, somehow I don't think Mom would've wanted me wandering around the streets at that hour.

It bears mentioning, however, that this assignment was less about the content of writing, and more about the form -- that is to say, developing penmanship.

If there was one subject that gave me the most difficulty in elementary school, it was penmanship. In spite of all the writing exercises we given in class or for homework, I just never quite achieved the standard of what was considered acceptable chirography; as I recall, I seemed to have the most difficulty with "S/s" and lower-case "r." It was hardly any better when we got onto cursive -- I probably could've done just as well writing in Aramaic.

Of course, when it was school-related, I at least tried to be conscientious about my penmanship. Writing on my own time, I cared rather less about hewing to any of that D'Nealian or Zaner-Bloser indoctrination -- down with the tyrants! Admittedly, however, this probably resulted in some bad writing habits that persisted beyond elementary school. On a trip to England at the tail-end of seventh grade, I dashed off a missive to my class about my adventures thus far; I was a bit embarrassed later on to see in the "class newspaper" an item that noted my travels and added that "[Sean] sent us a letter we could hardly read." I recently found diaries I kept from my early to late teens (no, you're not allowed to see them), and sometimes I have trouble making out what I wrote.

Fortunately, neither of my parents were particularly alarmed about this, so I wasn't chained to my bedroom desk and commanded to do my penmanship exercises if I wanted my bowl of gruel for supper (Disclaimer: I was never served gruel as a child -- or at any other point in my life, to my knowledge.) And I certainly didn't stop writing for my own personal enjoyment, which I feel was a crucial element in my eventually wanting to become a writer.

But I probably could've benefited by taking a typing class in high school, or in my first couple of years of college, and shifted away from doing handwritten assignments. My work would likely have been cleaner and more presentable, and wouldn't have taken me as long to complete. It wasn't until I was about to move to Boston and finish up my undergraduate degree by enrolling in BU's journalism program, when I realized I should really learn how to type if I was going to enter that field. So I signed up for a secretarial class at a local community college, and finally got the hang of typing.

Talk about good timing: Five years later, I began working at a newspaper that used word processors (it'd be a little much to call them "computers"), which made typing even easier. Still, it was another 10 years or so before I had a home computer with which I could write personal letters, so I kept scrawling -- albeit with more care than in seventh grade.

Nowadays, the only time I write with a pen or pencil is when I sign a card or a form, make out a grocery list, or take notes when interviewing someone. What started out solely as a tool of my profession -- a typing keyboard -- has now become the basis for most all of my non-verbal communication; I feel like I'm actually more comfortable typing than I ever really was writing.

In recent years, I've heard/seen some lamenting about the decline of penmanship instruction in our schools, especially in cursive writing. I'm ambivalent about this. On the one hand, if a kid can write the letters of the alphabet halfway decently (and legibly), why devote time and resources to making him or her conform to some anointed standard? I have no problem with kids being proficient at typing by the time they reach fourth grade, as long as things like spelling, punctuation, and grammar are enforced.

But I think kids should also be able to step away from the keyboard and literally still have the power in their hands to communicate, or to simply enjoy and amuse themselves -- sitting on the porch with a piece of paper and pencil, pens or crayons, not having to worry about whether there's an outlet nearby or if the battery is running down. Besides, if there's a power outage, how are you going to do your report for your class?

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