Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Why Learning Matters

I was seven years old and the bus dropped me off at my babysitter's house. She lived a good walk from the trailer my parents and I (along with my brother) were living in at the time, on a dirt road. I wasn't supposed to walk on the road. I was supposed to go to the babysitter's house, though.

On this day, though, I found the front door to my babysitter's house locked. There was a note on the door - a note that did me no good.

The note was written in cursive. I had just started second grade and we hadn't learned cursive yet. I could make out a few things - by that time I could read extensively for a 7-year-old - but only print. I knew my mother's signature in cursive and that was about it.

I wandered around the back and found that door unlocked. I went in and called for my caregiver. The house echoed only my timid little voice as I first called out a name and then moved to a sobbing wail as I realized I was alone.

The phone lines were still party lines, and I had been told on multiple occasions not to touch the telephones, no matter what, not even to answer what was called "our ring." I did not dare call anyone because everything was long distance. The only number I knew was my grandmother's, anyway, and she lived 30 miles away.

My mother worked at a job near my grandmother (it was a long way off to a little child), and my father was a traveling salesman and I never knew when he would be home. It would be two hours at least before my mother came to fetch me.

Two hours is a mighty long time when you're a little girl. I made myself a jelly sandwich and tried not to make a mess - my babysitter hated messes - and sniffled myself quiet long enough to do whatever homework I had. Then I settled in to finish reading Bambi, by Felix Salten. This was the original novel, not the Disney version for kids, which tells you how progressed I was in my reading.

My mother finally turned up, followed not long after by my babysitter, who had left because she'd had an emergency with one of her own children.

Both were surprised to find me alone in the house.

I had not followed directions. I was supposed to walk up the road in the opposite direction of my home to the trailer up the hill, where an adult was waiting to take me in hand (why the adult never came for me, I do not know). I remember being yelled at, and my mother giving me a swat on the behind for not doing what I was told and for leaving crumbs on the kitchen table.

After they all finished yelling at me, I tearfully explained that I couldn't read the message. "You can read!" my mother exploded.

"Not that kind of writing," I cried.

It was then my mother saw the note and realized it was in cursive. I could not read cursive at that time, though I made it a priority after this incident. (I remember going to my second-grade teacher and begging her to teach me cursive, bursting into tears while I asked, and so without question she took me aside during the daily quiet time when the other children were napping, and taught me to read cursive writing, which wasn't taught until third grade. Bless her.)

I don't recall an apology from the babysitter or my mother, but I generally don't in most of my memories. Adults in my youth were not known for apologizing when they screwed up. Unlike Andy Taylor in the Andy Griffith Show, big people in my life were not good at recognizing the need to sit tiny little me on a knee and kiss me on the head and say, "I'm sorry." That's too bad, really, because it would have gone a long way toward making childhood more bearable. (It helps in adulthood too, if people say they are sorry, but I no longer expect apologies from anyone. I just hand out "I'm sorry" like candy, myself, knowing it is somehow my fault that I was too young to read cursive (with said incident serving as a nice metaphor of everything I cannot do or do not do right).

It wasn't long thereafter that I had a new babysitter, though I don't recall if the incidents were related or if it was because the babysitter was going to have a seventh child. Oddly, I don't know who kept me after school after that; certainly someone did for a time. After my brother started school I know where we stayed but there is a gap there for me in that I don't know where I went after school for the remainder of the second grade and none of the third grade. Maybe I just went home and stayed alone, although that doesn't sound right. I'll have to ask my brother if he remembers.

This odd memory came roaring back this morning, totally unbidden, while I was in the shower. It is neither a bad memory nor a good one; it's more a tale of how life was when I was growing up.

Perhaps a recent article I read about how certain states are bringing cursive writing back into the curriculum brought this incident to mind. Supposedly cursive has always been taught here where I live, but my 24-year-old nephew, who went through the same school system I did, only 25 years later, cannot read it. Two years ago when my brother sent him a recipe in my mother's handwriting, he couldn't understand the words because they were written in my mother's beautiful cursive.

When I go to the county courthouse, all of the old records are handwritten. Court orders, civil verdicts, birth and death certificates - all written in longhand, all illegible to thousands of people who cannot read cursive and apparently have no desire to do so.

Many primary sources that pre-date the 1900s are handwritten. The original U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are written in the cursive of the time. Can you read them?


My cursive handwriting is awful; I turned to print a long time ago. I still remember how to write it, though.

And I certainly now know how to read it.


  1. I sympathize with your 7-year old self. Mama worked, and Older Brother was supposed to look after me but I got home before him so I had to check in with the neighbors. Even though I knew my neighbors well I still felt alone until the Brother, Mama, or Daddy came home....I'm glad to hear cursive is coming back.

  2. Being able to read (and write) cursive is part of being educated.

  3. I too was advanced in grade school. My mother could only write in cursive and when teaching me to write taught me cursive first. All my teachers got mad because I wouldn’t print. I still prefer cursive to print, although sometimes my writing looks like a combination of the two styles.


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