Sunday, September 18, 2011

On Handwriting (or: Mrs. Crazy Old Bird and The Mutant Claw)

I like to write.  Always have.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say, I have always liked to create with words.  When I was in third grade, I wrote a series of "horror" stories in an old notebook I found around the house and received accolades from my parents, grandparents and teachers for my creative efforts.  They were fairly tame accounts, as I recall.  One was about a large Loch Ness-type sea monster who lived in a local lake and frightened people out of swimming, fishing, or boating there.  No blood, no death.  Nothing like that at all.  Very Scooby-Doo-ish actually, which should be no surprise as I was addicted to that show at the time.  While far from contenders for the Pulitzer for short story writing, the stories were fun to write, and people seemed to like them.  I was hooked.

The trouble was, while I liked the creative aspect of writing, I hated the physical act of doing it.  For that matter, I still do.  If I can't type it, I don't want to do it.

You see, I developed this mutant way of holding a pen or pencil that no amount of correction by the nuns and other teachers at my parochial school could remedy.  (Corporal punishment was de facto banned there by the seventies.)  So, I essentially hold my writing utensils backwards, not unlike how some left-handers do, even though I am a righty.  Also, I hold it very tightly.  While I can hold my pen or pencil in the traditional way, my default is the "mutant claw" hold.  It's true to this day.  My handwriting is legible, but no thing of beauty, for sure.


My fourth grade teacher, a non-nun in her seventies whose picture is in the dictionary beside the definition of "old school", waged constant war with me about my handwriting grip.  We'll call her "Mrs. Crazy Old Bird" for now.  She was constantly coming to my desk and rearranging my fingers around the writing utensil, using a tone usually reserved for addressing mentally-challenged baboons.  Needless to say, I found this rather humiliating, especially since it was always done in full view of all my friends in class.  (This was just one of many conflicts I had with this lady, which could fill an entire book.  Maybe they will someday.  It was an epic battle of wills between she and I all year long, on a number of levels.)

Another of Mrs. Crazy Old Bird's favorite tricks was to literally sneak up behind me and pull the pen or pencil out of my hand while I was using it.  She maintained that if she couldn't grab it out of my hand, then I was holding to too tightly.  I became more than a little high-strung in her class, never knowing when this loon was going to swoop in and steal my pencil as I was about to make a great point in an essay about the Hawley-Smoot Tariff or something equally mesmerizing.  Back then, there was no room in the curriculum for writing anything even remotely of the student's own choosing.  Sometimes she would cause me to jump, she became so stealthy at it.  I think I developed a nervous twitch for a while.

I often would shake cramps out of my hand or stop to rest in the middle of an assignment because it hurt me so badly.  Mrs. Crazy Old Bird would smirk at me from behind her desk, as if to say "It's your own stupid fault, kid.  Just do as I say, and no more pain."  I loathed her at the time.

Much of school did not challenge me, and I often resorted to wisecracks and other distractions to keep myself sane throughout my school career.  It really reached a peak that year in fourth grade.  Heaven knows, Mrs. Crazy Old Bird had plenty of other things to complain about to my parents, but that grip always topped the list at every conference.  It was like her white whale.  Given the list of behaviors Mrs. Crazy Old Bird presented to them each time, my parents were mystified that it was my handwriting that vexed her most.  It was legible, if not letter-perfect, and I had taken to cursive that year as well as any other student.  Her tirades about how I held my writing utensils actually worked in my favor with my parents, since it made her seem a little kooky.  They must have thought that the other things on her laundry list about me were out of proportion as well.  For my part, I kept my grades top-notch in spite of it all though (except for penmanship, of course), and knew where to draw the line between being a wiseguy and being rude in the classroom, so my parents didn't get too worried about it all.

I believe that it was in fourth grade that my love of creative writing went into dormancy.  It didn't die, thankfully.  I was fortunate enough to have the same language arts teacher for the next four years.  She was a gifted young nun named Sister Mona whose instructional methods, I know now, were ahead of their time.  While she was not able to include much creative writing in the curriculum due to the restrictions placed on her, she was pretty understanding about my mutant claw pencil grip.  She also saw flashes of talent in the writing that I did do for her over those four years, and was gently encouraging.  I can't say that she caused me to take off as a writer, but she managed to keep the ember glowing inside of me.

In time, word processors became more prevalent, I learned to type quite well, and my writing ember sparked into a fire again.  I don't do it nearly as often as I'd like, but it's always there for me as an escape and a creative outlet.  This blog is one example of it.

POSTSCRIPT: The story of me and Mrs. Crazy Old Bird had kind of an interesting ending.  It turns out that my fourth grade year was her last before she retired.  She was genuinely elderly at the time, so I do not think it was me who pushed her over the edge to retiring.  Her husband died shortly after I started fifth grade, and she moved into a small apartment by herself within walking distance from our school.  One of the nuns would visit her at least once a week, and liked to bring along some of Mrs. Crazy Old Bird's former students to visit as well.  I was asked to go on several occasions.

It was during one of these visits that  Mrs. Crazy Old Bird, whose real name was Mrs. Upton, told me how much potential she saw in me, how strongly she felt about my abilities, and how she was hard on me because she genuinely wanted to see me succeed in the future.  I hadn't seen it that way before, but for some reason it made perfect sense to me now.  I could tell she meant what she was saying.  The ice melted between us, and we became friends.  I went along on the visits to see her a number of times in the first year or two after fourth grade, and saw her in an entirely new light.  She liked soap operas and her snaggle-toothed old cat, and loved being a teacher.  Her former students, even me, meant the world to her.  The frequency declined over the next couple of years, and she died shortly after I started high school.  To this day, whenever I am at the local cemetery, I stop by her grave and say a quick prayer.  We misunderstood each other, but she was looking out for what she saw as my best interests, and for that I am grateful.

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