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Sign Language

February 7, 2016 | by Mordechai Schmutter

As an English teacher at a Jewish high-school, I am witnessing firsthand the demise of cursive. And I couldn’t be happier.

I’ve always seen writing in cursive kind of like speaking with a British accent. It’s classy, but no one can understand you.

(To all my British readers, I should apologize. When I say “cursive”, I mean “joined-up letters”.)

Cursive writing did have its time. It was invented back when everyone wrote in the dark by candlelight, using feathers, and it was a big pain to keep picking up your hand after every letter, because those birds were heavy. Then your bird would get away, and you’d have to chase it down, which wasn’t easy, because as we mentioned, it was dark.

Script is great if you’re writing with one hand on a windy day, and you don’t want your paper to blow away.

Then you’d come back and continue the word, but because it was dark, you’d continue it on a different part of the paper, or sometimes on another piece of paper entirely. And it would be impossible to read. So instead, you write so that all the letters are joined together, and it’s still impossible to read, but at least you expect it.

Sure, many respected historic documents were written in script. The Constitution, for example. And it’s because of this that our government officials spend day and night arguing about what it actually says. No one can read it. Half the time, even the writer himself can’t read it. He finishes writing the word, and then when he’s done, he has to go back and cross all his t’s and dot all his i’s. But usually, he ends up crossing h’s and dotting n’s.

“Seriously? You couldn’t read your own handwriting half a second later when you went back to cross your t’s, and now I’m supposed to decipher what you wrote with a crossed “l”? Where on earth is Constantinopte?”

I have no idea what they were thinking when they designed the letters:

“The n has to have two bumps.”

“But then it’s an m!”

“Okay, we’ll give the m three bumps.”

“Um… Why don’t we just give the n one bump?”

“Because then it will look like an r.”

“Why does the r have any bumps?”

“It’s not really a bump. It has a squiggle on top. Did you have any ideas for the capital G?”

“Not really. Let’s just use this doodle I made on the side of the page while you were talking. What about the capital Q?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just make it look like a 2.”

“Then what if someone wants to actually write a 2?”

“He can spell it out.”

“So we’re not going to make a script for numbers?

“No, we’ll just make them all lean slightly to the right.”

I bring this up because of a recent move that schools across the country are making to stop teaching script. In fact, the national curriculum, picked up by 40 of the 50 states, doesn’t mention it anymore, instead mentioning something called “keyboarding”, which is what they call typing now that typewriters no longer exist. It turns out that we’re falling behind all the other countries, education-wise, and if there’s one area in which we don’t have to worry about falling behind Japan, it’s English script. So we’re ditching it.

Now personally, I never really write in script, my logic being that I’ve never seen a book written in script. I have a similar philosophy with blue pens. But like a lot of you readers out there, I still think kids should learn script, for the same reason that you’re thinking: Because if I had to learn script, then these kids should too. They have it easy enough.

And also, because as an English teacher at a Jewish high-school, I don’t have to teach script. This is the job of third-grade teachers, who sit there and convince the kids that they’re going to need script for life. Then it’s my job, as a high-school teacher, to yell at them for using it, especially on spelling tests. (“Is that a w, or 3 and a half i’s?”) Also a capital T and F look basically the same, which you might not think is a big deal, but probably because you’ve never administered a true-or-false test.

My father and a lot of people of his generation have gorgeous script. In the days before typewriters, the teachers really enforced it. But back then they had time, because there wasn’t that much history to learn.

A lot of people are up in arms, like we’re saying we should stop teaching kids the alphabet. I mean, sure, script is great if you’re writing with one hand on a windy day, and you don’t want your paper to blow away. But other than that, it’s sort of obsolete. Why are we teaching our kids to write in a second font? Teaching more fonts is nice, but why not spend a year and a half teaching them Arial Black, or Century Gothic, or Wingdings? Does anyone communicate in Wingdings? Talk about a font that people came up with while drinking.

We’re still going to have script. It’s one of the 350 fonts available with Microsoft Word. We can still type with it:

“Lol!” said my bff. “What on earth am I typing here?”

But a lot of these people are saying that if we stop teaching kids script, how are they going to know how to sign their names? Like anyone signs their names using real script. Sure, we start out with it, but after signing 80 million tests and official forms, it’s devolved into a squiggle that we could just as easily make if we wouldn’t know script. Especially if we have a long last name, like Radovicnovizicidivizcinicizivich.

That alone is an argument against practicing script. The one thing we practice the most is the one thing that looks the least like a word. I don’t even remember the last time I spelled “Schmutter” correctly when I signed something. I cross both t’s at once, and sometimes the h as well, and I know there are supposed to be 6 bumps in the middle there, but I only know that because I’ve just now counted it for the purposes of this article. Sometimes I make as few as three (Schutter), and sometimes I make as many as 13 (Schmumnutter). My signature never looks the same twice, especially if I’m signing on one of those electronic tablets at the supermarket that don’t register that I’ve started writing until about halfway through my name. How can anyone look at two instances of my signature and say, “Yup; that’s the same guy”? That’s my secret fear.

The traditionalists also want to know how kids are going to be able to read official documents, like the Declaration of Independence.

I don’t know. There are plenty of print versions available. The only time you ever see the original copy is under lock and key on your eighth-grade graduation trip, unless, as with my eighth grade trip, your trip is focused less on historic documents and more on rafting the Delaware. And to be honest, I’ve tried reading the print version and haven’t made it through that either. They’re not missing anything.

It’s not going to be illegal to learn script. Some schools are still going to teach it. And you can learn it on your own time, like piano. Or balloon letters. Every kid at some point teaches himself how to make balloon letters. Were the parents livid back when they stopped teaching that in school? I’m asking seriously. I don’t know my history. I was busy learning script when I was in school.

What do you think? Write me. But not in script, for goodness’ sake. I don’t want to have to read it.


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