Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Learning to Write

(Reclaimed from Bubblews, where it appeared on June 5, 2014. Thanks to Realityspeaks for suggesting this . Thanks to Gurtop at Morguefile for the image: . You can tell it's not mine because we used only English at my primary school.)

In 1971, after two relatives who lived in the same house in Florida had different major surgical operations, my mother decided to pack up her children and go to Florida for the winter. Although we were there for several months, Florida didn't really require visitors' children to go to school, especially when the visitors thought it might be more educational for the visitors' children to spend lots of time with their post-op grandmothers.

This was the grandmother who had been declared dead in 1935, but had been very active in jobs and adventures and even 1960s movements as long as she had one good leg. She still had quite a lot of energy left. What she needed was an giving her granddaughter the kind of education a young lady would have needed in, perhaps, 1921. She still had little white dresses with frills on them that my mother and aunt had worn, but not worn out, when they were in primary school in the 1930s, and during the next year, when she lived with us, I wore them. She thought a six-year-old girl ought to be at least basting, hemming, and sewing on buttons to help her mother make clothes at home. Reading? Why not the best Book of all, the Bible? She would call up her friends and have me read the Bible to them on the phone. We didn't do much math because Grandmother didn't like math either. But how ridiculous that my school hadn't started us writing cursive yet. Schools had deteriorated in these degenerate days but surely the teachers would be impressed when I came back from Florida writing nice, neat cursive script just like Mother. 

In fact Mother's cursive writing models looked a lot like the ones on the walls of my second grade classroom. However, when I got back to school my first grade teacher was not impressed at all. In her opinion what "gifted" children most needed to learn was to sit back and wait for everyone else to catch up. No encouragement to do anything ahead of my official grade level would ever come from her. (I didn't like her. I didn't like school.)

In second grade we were finally allowed to write cursive...but only during the second term and only after everybody had spent at least one day making each letter, first lower-case and then upper-case, exactly the way "Mrs. Ratfink" did. Writing letters Mrs. Ratfink hadn't taught us how to write was wrong. The way Mother wrote was wrong. I needed to re-learn everything, even the way I wrote a lower-case "e." You might have been thinking that there is no controversy about the way to write a lower-case cursive "e." You might have been wrong. According to Mrs. Ratfink, Mother hadn't taught me to put a long enough flourish on the end, and this made my lower-case e's all wrong. Barely even readable.

The best part of that endless school year was getting to spend three weeks in quarantine with mumps. I hated Mrs. Ratfink. And her school. And the fuss Grandmother made about my not being allowed to skip straight into grade three. By comparison with those things I positively liked mumps.

During the rest of my elementary school years I made a special study of the way my various teachers wrote. I became a handwriting imitator. After elementary school I've hardly ever written anything in cursive...though in high school I dabbled in calligraphy. 

Mrs. Ratfink left our school a few years later, on maternity leave, and never came back. I was glad my brother didn't have to put up with her stupidity and hoped she'd found a job better suited to her intelligence, such as dishwashing. Only recently I heard that she'd been hired as a teacher, kept until she achieved tenure, and finally retired with honors, at a school even smaller and poorer than ours...and as far as I'm concerned this fully explains why that school consistently fails to overachieve in any way comparable to ours.
As John Holt observed, the micromanaging "any way I haven't taught you is wrong" sort of personality might be acceptable for tap dance instructors, or perhaps prison guards, but it does not belong in any school where it might come into contact with children.