Doing the write thing

When I was little, my grandmother who’d been raised in New Orleans and had been heavily influenced by all things French, wrote me letters in a beautiful script that I found utterly illegible and as beautiful as a fairytale. Her hand was unique to her as far as I knew, heavy with romantic connotations, shrouded in some mysterioius past. Where had she learned to write like that? Why wasn’t I taught to add such flourishes to my cursive at elementary school? What did it mean?

Like all American children, I was taught to write on lined paper. Two horizontal lines, with a dashed line between them to help you control the x-height of your alphabet. My first books had pre-printed slanting lines on them as well, indicating the angle of incline that good penmanship would undoubtedly have. My mother had been an English teacher, and like most English teachers, her penmanship was beautiful. It still is. Communication is about being understood. If someone can’t read your writing, how effectively can you communicate with them?

So, I always wrote relatively well, clearly, I thought, even when I switched from cursive to a rapid, all-cap, architectural style of writing that suited me better in my early 20’s. I loved the geometry of it. And there they were: crisp, clean letters that anyone could understand. Right?


I moved to Italy, and suddenly I was an alien on all fronts. My speech was incomprehensible, and my penmanship, so carefully practiced for three+ decades, useless. I never understood why until I had children who began to go to elementary school here. Then it became clear why my writing met with scrunched up noses. Children in Italian schools are taught to write on an architect’s grid. In fact, they work on gridded paper for years. They come out of the box learning to write in all caps—so far so good—but when they switch to cursive (corsivo) things take a turn for—what do you know?—the way my grandmother used to write, minus the Hancock-ian eccentricities that evolved over her many years. They learn to count the squares, place dots at the correct starting points, and off they go, learning method, orderly thinking and penmanship at the same time. (Or so the theory goes.)

Slanting is replaced with uprightness. Abbreviated barbs and hooks are replaced with generous loops. Neatly closed ovals are replaced with open-ended curls. The cross-bars of H’s and the slanting lines of Z’s and 7’s are crossed by non-functional hash marks. The numbers 1 and 4 are utterly foreign to me. I’ve tried to replicate it for you here. Not beautifully executed, but you get the idea. Note the lack of j, k, w, x, and y which don’t exist in the Italian alphabet.

And the row of flowers at the bottom? That is referred to as a “greca” referring, I presume, to the famed Greek wave pattern that you see outlining mosaics and tile flowers. These are repetitive patterns, designed on the grid, that the children use to decorate their school books and, again, to practice learning to count, observe and follow instructions. They start with simple forms, copied from their teachers and from books, and advance to complex Escher-esque designs of their own imagining.

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4 Responses to Doing the write thing

  1. Mom says:

    I’m smiling and chuckling. But it’s not funny. I think I told you about the freshman student I had last year whose handwriting was so totally illegible that I printed out lined sheets and a sample alphabet for him to practice. Poor guy. He’ll be handicapped for his entire life unless he can do something about this. It’s scandalous that American schools let this happen to children. I’m so happy that your kiddlies are getting this kind of education! Love, Mom

  2. Mary McKinley says:

    I had the same experience in Hungary but they have 44 letters despite lacking q, w, x and y. I suffered from having my beautiful handwriting ‘tsk-tsked’ over with much head shaking until I retrained myself…am still working on that numeral 4.

    Love your blog and am also glad that European schools still teach penmanship. It’s the write thing to do!

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