Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Coming Down With Blue Pinky Finger Syndrome

 I’m sorry to say that I do not have any fond memories of learning to write in elementary school.   

Don’t get me wrong – I have memories all right, but none of them are fond.

You see, since I’m left-handed, everything in the educational universe was designed to annoy, disable, thwart or otherwise discombobulate my early attempts at writing neatly.  Everything was all turned around.

First off, there were those little desks – those blonde chair-like things with shiny metal legs, adorned with a small flat surface for books and writing attached to the right-hand side.  We left-handers – especially we the pudgy ones - had to go through all sorts of physical contortions, twisting ourselves in miniature versions of Dr. Frankenstein’s misshapen assistant (“Yes, Master…”) just to write our names in block letters on the tops of our papers.

Then, there was the simple fact that, in the English-speaking world, we tend to write everything from left to right, unless we’re doing some sort of parlor trick, in which case, all bets are off.  Plus, I went to an elementary school that mandated the use of fountain pens – no ball-points permitted.  Believe it or not, ball-point pens were considered “new-fangled” and pencils were not permitted.  So, that means that we lefties always left school at the end of the day with BPF (Blue Pinky Finger) syndrome, looking like some ominous form of digital necrosis had set in.  (In case you haven’t given it much thought, you can take my word for it; it is VERY DIFFICULT to write anything from left to right with your left hand AND a fountain pen without smearing wet ink all over your pinky finger.)

But enough about me and my tribulations; suffice it to say that I’m a lousy penman when it comes to longhand.  I can do it in a pinch, but generally I tend to write in a kind of calligraphic shorthand that few can read.  So, you’d think that I'd jump on the bandwagon of the pedagogically enlightened folks running the schools in Indiana and Hawaii (and, it seems, lots of other states) and cheer the news that kids no longer will have to learn to write cursive.

Well, actually…no.  That’s a Very Bad Idea.

Sure, cursive is hard and old-fashioned. It’s difficult and slow.  Sure, keyboarding skills are probably more important in the 21st century. And, right, there’s no “standard” as to what constitutes “cursive” that’s universally accepted.  And absolutely – writing in cursive can be sheer agony if you’re a southpaw.

But – and it’s an important “but” – being able to WRITE cursive it the easiest way to learn how to READ cursive.

Imagine a whole generation of Americans unable to easily read the cache of their grandparents’ letters.  Imagine a future researcher going into a county court house and leaving, unable to read the deed transcriptions made in the 1870s?

Can’t happen here, you say?  Well, then talk to folks who do German research and they’ll tell you the difficulty reading the German cursive script known as Suetterlin.  And it’s not just English-speakers – it’s modern young Germans who’ve never had to learn it.

Imagine being cut off from your culture because you are not able to read something written in longhand a century ago?

I’ll take Blue Pinky Finger Syndrome over cultural and historical illiteracy any day!


  1. I used to spend the day at NEHGS taking notes and I always came home with a good pinky callus. This hasn't happened for years because now I either take digital photos or bring my laptop. My husband always knew when I had sneaked down to Boston because of those calluses...

  2. I feel the same way about the removal of cursive writing in school. I think it has to do with standardized tests. The time needed to teach cursive writing is replaced by the time needed to teach for the tests. It will be a shame when a future generation won't be able to read letters, journals, etc from past generations.

  3. We didn't have to use fountain pens but my pinky was discolored daily non-the-less. :-)
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)