For reasons I could not understand then and I cannot understand today, we were subjected to an unusually heavy dose of instruction in the art of “penmanship”. Somebody in the school system believed that nice, neat handwriting was an indispensable hallmark of a good education. Our district mandated that we should be schooled in something called the Painter System. Someone actually copyrighted a “system” of handwriting based on the “just so” positioning of hand and a “just so” rolling of the elbow to create a “just so” set of letters that were supposed to be “just so” uniform. I believe, if done correctly, the Painter System could erase any evidence of individual character or personality.

The basic technique for doing this handwriting was a rolling of a suspended elbow while maintaining a rigid wrist. While I could envision my Victorian great-grandmother sitting at a cute little desk practicing such an art by gas-lit lamp, it seemed impractical for me. I typically wrote on my lap. I had no room to “roll”. I had no space to keep my wrist flat and rigid. But then again, my handwriting was notoriously marginal and had been for years. It was just never anything I was ever going to care about, and my report card reflected that.

By the time I got to sixth grade, this became a subject of contention with my writing and geography teacher, Mrs. Robison. It is suffice to say that in sixth grade, when our class rotated between two classrooms and three teachers, this was the time of the day I associated with unadulterated dread. There was no joy of learning here – it was a time to endure and survive. The old bat would get into a slightly bent position as we prepared to begin our writing lesson. Pounding fist into palm, and obviously inspired by the witches in Macbeth, she began to chant her unique writing tutorial chant:

All right – ready roll, one, two, three, four, fiiiiiive

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten” (She then shifted to a quiet hush.)

Eleven, twelve…

(Then a quick crescendo)

“Pens Down!”

Never did I heed her call to do things just right.

An ordeal came on a dreary Western Pennsylvania January Monday afternoon when I was called out for not completing my weekend writing assignment. It pertained to some questions at the end of a chapter about the volcanic mountains of Mexico. After berating me for my shortcoming, I was asked, “Just what kind of activity caused you to waste your time?” All eyes in the room were on me. Although I suspected that most were sympathetic it still was a pressure cooker. I answered meekly and truthfully, “I was at my grandfather’s funeral.” Ten seconds of silence. No apology was offered. “Well, it couldn’t have lasted all weekend did it?” Her mean blue eyes peered through glasses perched on a bumpy witch-like nose. Could she have done a better job of taking the joy out of learning?

Several weeks later, the anger still strong enough to evince a grimace on my face, we had just finished a lesson introducing Brazil. Mrs. Robison told us – for those unable to find a huge nation on the map – that “Brazil looks like Leo the Lion’s nose”. We enjoyed a rare musical interlude, Andrew Hancheck had brought in an old family ’78 of Perry Como singing “They Grow an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil”. Mrs. Robison then announced that, today we would have a special guest. Mrs. Painter herself, the supreme majesty of the writing system would come to inspect, inspire, and mostly case aspersions on us. Darn it, I was hoping the special guest would be Alan Shepard!

Without further ado, The Grande Dame arrived at the door. She was as out of place as a big sister at a Boy Scout meeting. Dressed in what I would call a tea party dress that would have fit perfectly with a White House event hosted by Grace Coolidge, she wore had a gigantic hat that was no less than four times the width of her head. In my circles no woman dressed this way. Keep in mind that our First Lady at the time wore a tasteful pillbox. She moved like a queen about to ascend to the throne, arm held up bent at the elbow and parallel to the ground, as if it were needed to balance the absurd chapeau she wore as a crown.

“Good day young ladies and gentlemen.” She sounded like Billie Burke who played the good witch in the Wizard of Oz. “Ooh ahh todaaayyy we will demonstrate our very best handwriting. “ She sent me to Snoresville with a long dissertation on how to effortlessly float the letters from our hands. “And you cross the “t” with a little straight hat, not a big, ohhh ahh, floppy one like ahhh mine. “

Soon it was time to begin our demonstrations. We were asked to place dimes she had brought to class on the top of our writing hand wrist. “If the dime ahhh stays in place, you will oh ahhh get to keep it for yourselves. Now let us begin with the line, LLL DDD. Rolling, rolling…”

I could see Joe Ericson with his hands still sweaty from the rounders game we played at recess. He was struggling to get some ink to appear on the wet paper. My damn blue and gold Kurtz Brothers pen was also, as was often the case, not in a giving mood. I had only intermittent ink. Some others, mostly girls, were doing well. I could see trouble brewing. Without warning, Mrs. Painter appeared from behind. “Oooh, you are not making good contact with the paper.” That was not the problem… I was nearly ripping the paper from my effort. It was the pen. And as I bent my head to look at her and fire back, my wrist tipped and my dime rolled to the floor. Well, it was a dime. Even in 1962 a dime did not go that far. You couldn’t even buy a Hostess Banana Flip for a dime. They were twelve cents. So no loss there – except a bit of dignity.

By then her serene highness had floated over in Joe’s direction. She said nothing to Joe, she just gave a contemptuous look – the kind that says, “What are YOU here for? Joe was my buddy, he did not deserve this. At least we had the camaraderie to be together in the elite group of those NOT receiving the coveted writing certificate.

Within seven short years, uncredentialled Joe would be crawling through the Mekong Delta at the behest of elite citizens like that scary old “dignitary”. I wonder if they imagined in her social circles that men with such poor handwriting should be relegated to such tasks. Keep your dime lady!