I will admit to holding my handwriting as a point of pride: the graceful loops, the long-angled lines I could make with a good pen. Practicing those flowing letters in an antique-looking penmanship workbook tilted at an angle on a table top, I aimed in childhood for cursive as light and long as my mother’s. A capital S as elegant and poised as a treble clef on a music staff.
I was one of those Christian homeschool kids who studied old fashioned penmanship.
Though it had not been taught in schools for decades, I was one of those Christian homeschool kids who studied old fashioned penmanship. Spencerian script, as one prominent version is known, lives on in the flourishes and curlicues of the classic logo “Coca-Cola” and as a nineteenth century fad that made a resurgence in the 1980s among insular, counter-cultural Christian families withdrawing from the mainstream. (See also: prairie dresses.) Inspired by either a homeschool convention or a family friend who made calligraphy wall art, my older sister acquired one cartridge-style fountain pen set with various colored (and expensive) inks. But I was the one who spent hours with the Spencerian workbooks, laboring with my ball point pens to imitate the variable vines of ink that, except for capital flourishes, started always at the base line.
A recent book threw light on my old handwriting obsession, suggesting that lines between economic class and Christian character are not so distinct, but smudged, messy. When Anne Trubek published The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, she made headlines with the claim that handwriting just does not matter as technology evolves. Cursive got left out of the most-recent education overhaul that produced the Common Core curriculum, and lots of us emotionally attached to those loops and lines felt miffed. As proof of virtue, intelligence, or even personality, Trubek’s research reveals no clear conclusions on handwriting, except about one thing: teachers grade poor handwriting consistently lower, even when the content is the same. The messier the cursive, the more negatively we judge the intelligence of the human. (Doctors are obviously exempt from this prejudice.)
It’s been true in my life, though. Reading and writing shifted my economic reality from service and labor to a class not mine by birth.
When I began attending a small Christian school in seventh grade, it was English teachers, undercompensated and kind, who first paid attention to the words I wrote on a page and, by extension, to me. I no longer used the Spencerian script, which itself was too fussy, settling instead for the simpler Palmer Method script that my grandparents used. But as a scholarship kid finally attending a “real” school, I staked no small measure of self-worth on my performance in the writing version of adolescent olympiads then known as The Power of the Pen. My pages curled with the intense pressure I applied.
What I didn’t realize, until chapters into Trubek’s fascinating book, is that the script’s designer intended it to be a measure of “uprightness” and “Christian character.” Trubek traces writing’s history from humanity’s first system, cuneiform, to the current cultural uproar over handwriting getting left out of the Common Core, a movement that some Christian sub-cultures reject as the latest offense of public education. Reading Trubek’s book, I found there’s a lot of church history wrapped up in how we write the way we do. A lot of religious posturing, too.
Spencer designed a script laden with moral and spiritual meaning. The combination of steel nibs and upward strokes require the writer to sit more upright.
The founder of Spencerian script himself, Platt Rogers Spencer, moved to my home state of Ohio in 1810. A teacher and accountant, he was the first American, Trubek reports, to create a penmanship franchise, a business that included schools, books, pens, and practice materials. Inspired by the natural features he found along the shores of Lake Erie, Spencer designed a script laden with moral and spiritual meaning. The combination of steel nibs and upward strokes require the writer to sit more upright.
“Starting with Spencer, no longer was handwriting a way to display one’s status; it became a process through which one learned key values,” Trubek writes. “In the second half of nineteenth century America, having a good Spencerian hand was an indicator that you were a Christian, educated, and proper.”
Spencer believed handwriting wasn’t about just learning one’s letters. It was about being a better person. Followers reissued copies of his 19th century theory and workbooks in 1985 when I was seven years old. It was not long before my parents decided to teach my siblings and me in our rural home, a place where we had to help chop and stack wood if we wanted heat through the winter, and there wasn’t always enough.
In adolescence, I continued to hold onto writing as a lifeline while my family’s economic stability remained precarious. I was conscious of always being a scholarship kid, feeling both guilty for my ambition and anxious to be judged “good enough.” What would save me – my fancy handwriting or my Christian character? At the time, I’m sure I could not tell the difference. Both were tangled together in my unconscious conviction. Trubek’s book made me realize that this particular confusion is centuries old, stretching back to the monks sitting hours in scriptoriums being told their quills did holy work while the work itself wore down their bodies, their eyes, and their health.
I wonder how easily new myths of self-improvement infect our spirituality at the intersection of class and access to technology.
Now in middle age myself, technology has changed again, and I fumble signing that old cursive signature on touch screens, impulsively apologizing as I pay for my coffee or food. No one seems to care about my handwriting now, but I wonder how easily new myths of self-improvement infect our spirituality at the intersection of class and access to technology.
It could be pure coincidence that so many friends from my teens and twenties – children of the 1980s era that revived purity culture – now work as wellness coaches, selling balance and harmony through yoga and superfood shake mixes with religiously radiant smiles. But the pressure to “eat clean” or present a polished persona online feels not far from the expectation to prove my “uprightness and Christian character” with the artistic conformity of my upper case F. What are the unconscious ways that we measure, or signal, Christian character now? And where does economic class cloud the picture? Clean eating? Marie Kondo-tidied homes? Instagram “messy vulnerability”?
I have the messy part down. But my penmanship? It’s just not as good as it used to be.