How to Succeed in Penmanship: Stories from the Fifth Grade


Everyone in my elementary school knew when you were a student in Ms. Smith’s fifth grade class. We were the kids walking in perfect single-file down the hallway, not so much as a step or a whisper out of turn. We were the first to notice her enter the cafeteria at the end of lunch and would make ourselves busy as she slunk through the lanes of tables, stalking any unsuspecting students who were talking after the bell had rung. We were also the subject of a number of rumors, ranging from the ones that claimed we were tortured on a daily basis but prevented from speaking about it to the jealously-whispered stories about how we were regularly treated to homemade hot chocolate and lemonade while Ms. Smith read us chapters from our favorite book: Sideways Stories from Wayside School.

Writing this now, I think the sheer level of inconsistency in our class's reputation would make a for great sequel to Matilda, in which we find out that Ms. Trunchbull and Miss Honey are actually the same person. That truly wouldn't be too far off for Ms. Smith; her reputation as a ruler-wielding Catholic nun-type was not unfounded, but I can also tell you that she was one of the coolest teachers I have ever had, and without a doubt the most unique. 

She had rules about things that most other teachers would never think of, and she gave grades for things that no student would ever dream of being graded on. For one, we had to draw our own margins with a pencil and a ruler on all of our in-class assignments. If they weren’t perfectly straight or exactly one inch wide then our neatness grade suffered. 

On occasion sub-par margins would result in Ms. Smith actually tearing up our assignments—literally destroying our work in front of us over a few stray millimeters. And though this was a relatively rare occurrence, when she did happen to be in the right mood, we all had this creepy sense that she enjoyed it just a little bit. With all the theatrics and visibility of a public execution, she would dispatch the offending document with two or three good shreds, before pronouncing the guilty verdict: “Gaaaarbage!” I presume that by this she would have been referring to the mangled remains of some kid’s spelling test in her bloody hands, but I can’t imagine that the poor student’s feelings wouldn’t have felt a bit trashed as well.   

Naturally, Ms. Smith's expectations for neatness also carried over into penmanship. We had a separate grade for this that was part of every assignment we did. Pretty much everything in class had to be written in cursive. Printing was allowed only for math homework.

Ms. Smith had what seemed like perfect penmanship. She would write all of our lessons in large, Palmer-style cursive on the blackboard with her “special” chalk: thick, gorgeous sticks of the softest, smoothest, most feathery-light chalk you had ever seen, in bright, beautiful colors. It was a rare and thrilling moment when you were offered the chance to write an answer on the board with Ms. Smith’s undoubtedly expensive chalk. But, foolish was the student who, when called upon to solve a long division problem, arrogantly accepted this sacred pastel only to have it crumble against the board under his heavy hand.

Having had recently seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, what my ten-year-old self witnessed at this point was our very own version of the famous face-melting scene, but with hindsight, I think that the student’s disregard for this holiest of classroom objects rather earned him a tame verbal beating: “You cannot write with that much pressure!” Ms. Smith would admonish. “This is not like regular sidewalk chalk!” Truly, it was not. It was magical.

I recall getting fairly good grades on my penmanship. I loved writing in cursive and I would practice it at home often. A and A- were typical grades for me, but I always dreamed of getting the coveted A+. My classmates would tell me that I had some of the best handwriting in the class, but looking back, I wonder if my never-quite-perfect grades were because I prioritized expediency over obsessive neatness. I was never one to draw my letters like some of my bordering-on-obsessive classmates, who liked to follow Ms. Smith’s eccentric example of writing each line of script against a straight-edge, and adding any descender strokes in afterward. No, I loved cursive for its speed and "dash"—perhaps so much that a bit of avoidable sloppiness (in handwriting as in my general life skills) was inevitable. 

I was one of only two or three students in the class who wrote naturally on a slant, like Ms. Smith preferred. Slant was hardly, if ever mentioned in the cursive curriculum our school system used and most kids wrote without any at all, so I remember the excitement I felt when I learned that it was one of Ms. Smith’s famous “rules.” Maybe I thought that cursive without the slant was just kid-writing. Real cursive was mature. It was for adults. That’s why I liked writing it.

I might have sloped my letters too exuberantly for Ms. Smith, and for that I was doomed to be A- material, but she never said so. Come to think of it, she didn’t really give us any feedback about our writing—like she just expected us to figure out ourselves why our grade was a B and not a B+. If only she knew then how much it would traumatize me, to the point that I would write a story about it almost seventeen years later. 

Ms. Smith had quite a bit of other handwriting wisdom that I was eager to absorb. She seemed to me to be one of the last keepers of some secret Catholic School Knowledge of proper penmanship (and generally refined behavior) that my past teachers had simply been blind to. In Ms. Smith's class I saw what I had been missing and I wanted more.

My world opened up when she told us that those of us who held their pen with a four-finger grip, resting on the ring finger were flat out “doing it wrong.” While she never forced anyone to change the way they held their pen (as uncharacteristic as that seems to me now,) for some reason I became determined to adopt the proper three-finger “tripod” grip that I have used ever since. I also remember obsessing over the lowercase r, when I saw how elegantly Ms. Smith made a little “hat” and gently sloped the top of the letter before coming down to the baseline. Suddenly the boxy table-tops that riddled my papers seemed horridly ugly.

Life wasn’t all quill pens and slide-rules, however. For as much emphasis as Ms. Smith put on penmanship, she was equally ardent about her students knowing how to use a word processor. Yes, she was old-school, but she also wanted us to know the value of a good internet search and a well-formatted document. And she held our typing skills to the same standard as our penmanship. We were fledgling millennials after all, barely into the new century but already unknowingly fueling a demand for the first generation iPhone. 

We had our own mini computer lab in the classroom. We used those hip new brightly colored iMacs that you could see inside and keyboards with the plastic covers that were supposed to keep the keys clean but actually just ended up being really gross. We had a few rules about computer time, of course: everything had better be spell checked (obviously) and everything—I mean everything—had to be in Comic Sans. I wish I was making that up.

I wonder if Ms. Smith would have stopped short of actually throwing one of those iMacs out the window in protest of an unsanctioned font choice. If she had, I think any attempt to teach us a lesson would have met with only fits of laughter as we recalled the memorable scene from Wayside School is Falling Down when Ms. Jewels drops a computer from the thirtieth floor to demonstrate gravity.

Ms. Smith’s class certainly made me a good typist, but I sometimes wonder if it was her rule-following, character-building approach to teaching penmanship that made me all but give up cursive in middle school. Maybe I was embracing my newfound freedom to print. Or maybe I just needed to give my fingers and brain a break and not be worried about getting a grade on my script. Whatever it was, she certainly didn’t snuff it out of me for good. On the contrary, I am sure she must be part of the reason why I have fallen back in love with it.

I remember more about what happened in the fifth grade than in any other school year from my childhood. I think it must be the combination of pleasant, frightening, and downright hilarious moments that have helped the memory last so long, like the cupcakes Ms. Smith accepted from students on their birthdays, but never ate, and that sat fossilized for months on a ledge behind her desk. I hope I never forget those cupcakes, because it means I will never forget Ms. Smith. As for the A+ in penmanship, I never did get it, and I suppose I am still searching for it, thanks to this one quirky teacher who helped me realize that the journey to perfection is more satisfying than actually attaining it. 

Some fellow students and I once asked Ms. Smith if it was actually possible to earn the A+ we all wanted so badly. She thought for a moment and said, “Yes, it is possible, but it’s reserved for truly excellent work and I have only ever given out one.” We wondered what that student from years past had done to deserve the elusive plus sign at the end of an already superlative grade. If Ms. Smith ever gave us any insight into that mystery, then I certainly don’t remember what it was. I think she probably just smiled at us. It was that look that the kids from other classes saw as the evil smile of a tyrant, but to us was just knowing, caring, and wise.


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