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A Dope of letters

June 13, 2008
Adirondack Daily Enterprise
As long as I can remember, I wanted to write, though the definition of “write” has changed drastically over the years.

At first, what I wanted to write was letters. And when I say letters, I don’t mean the ones between people — I mean the ones in the alphabet.

I remember in my pre-kindergarten years watching my father reading his paper and wishing I could do that, even though I had no idea what “that” was. I only knew it was something adults could do but little kids couldn’t. That alone was reason to want to do it.

My mother read us books from the get-go, so by the time I got to kindergarten, I may have been able to recite the alphabet, but I couldn’t read. I do, however, remember the first word I read. It was on one of the first days of kindergarten, and it was both an epiphany and a total fluke and it is as true as it is improbable.

I’d taken off my jacket and was about to hang it up when I saw the label my mother’d sewn in it, which was my last name (no first names, so she didn’t have to buy separate labels for my brother and me).

I knew that was my last name — my mother’d told me. I looked at it (I can still see the red letters on the white background and the irregular green stitching around the border — my mother was no seamstress) and suddenly realized it wasn’t just my name, but was how my name was pronounced. And then it hit me: Writing was sounds put on paper. Those marks in their mysterious combinations were the words we spoke!

I looked at the name tag some more: Seidenstein. I sounded it out slowly and somehow figured out each syllable in my name was one group of those letters. In all honesty, I don’t know if I separated the syllables correctly, but it didn’t matter. I’d just demystified the purpose of writing; now, I only had to demystify its pattern.

The moving finger scribbles

After that initial epiphany, I’ve no specific memory of my writing until fourth grade, when I was introduced to cursive.

I don’t recall us calling it cursive — we just called it writing, as opposed to printing — but it was the real deal. Kids printed … but only adults wrote. And now I was going to be one of them.

My guide into this mysterious and revered world was Miss Reid. There were several things I remember about her. One was her sister, another Miss Reid, taught fourth grade at the River Street School. Another thing was she was tall and thin and looked like a real turn-of-the-century gal, with rimless spectacles, hair pulled into a tight bun and her shroud-like dresses, almost all in gray or dark blue. In fact, she had only one concession to color — one bright red circle of rouge on each cheek.

She was also patient and kind and I never remember her raising her voice or losing her temper. In short, she was the perfect person to teach handwriting to a bunch of nine-year-olds.

While handwriting was no easy chore to begin with, it was further complicated by our writing instruments: Believe it or not, in those antediluvian days, we used metal pen nibs in wooden holders, and the ink came from inkwells set into our desks. I guess the educators of the day figured if we used the same type of pen Mark Twain used, we’d turn out the same prose.

The writing method itself was called the Palmer Method. It’d been around forever and was considered tried and true. In my case it was tried all right…but it sure wasn’t true. Instead of the clear, symmetrical, flowing script of the Palmer handbook, my writing was an illegible scrawl.

None of this was the fault of Miss Reid, Mr. or Mrs. or Miss Palmer, the school board, the PTA or anyone other than yours truly. For all practical, educational and artistic purposes, I was a feral child, as incapable of learning how to write as I was of conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Two years passed and my handwriting hadn’t improved one iota. And not only was my cursive unreadable, but out of sheer laziness, or perhaps spite, my printing became unreadable as well.

A not-so-noble prize

And now the weirdest thing. At the end of sixth grade, there was a little awards assembly in the auditorium. I filed in with the others, but unlike them I was without either anticipation or expectations. I was no scholar, so an academic award was out, and ditto for my prowess as a jock. That left something like a good citizen award, but given my innate anti-authoritarianism and my inability to disguise it, that was a no-go as well.

No biggie. I just sat there in a self-induced trance, recalling the latest adventures of my comic book alter ego, Green Arrow, when suddenly I heard my name called from the stage.

Huh? Wha? I thought as I made my way out the aisle.

An award for me? It had to be a mistake.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a mistake — I really did win an award.

And what award was it?

Believe it or not, it had to do with handwriting — I’d won the Penmanship Improvement Award. There was a certificate with my name on it, so it was all on the up and up.

Still, I puzzled over how I ever got it, and it took a long time before the answer came to me.

First, it wasn’t an award for penmanship, but for penmanship improvement. That meant I could still have horrible handwriting — it just had to be less horrible than before.

Second, there was only one other kid in the class whose writing was almost as bad as mine. So did my writing actually improve more than his? The more I thought about it, the more I doubted it.

But there was one other factor that probably tipped the award in my favor. That other kid, my fellow illegible? He was also an inveterate nose-picker who refused to quit his in-class digital-narial antics — no matter how much Miss Pattinson threatened or harangued him.

So while my papers were no easier for Miss Pattinson to read, they were a whole lot easier for her to handle.

Ultimately, the competition for that award was so close, I can say I only won it by a nose.


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