News & Politics

First Person: Put It In Writing

Penmanship says a lot more about ourselves than a text message

Gayle’s son Ben had finished first grade. So as a family friend, I figured I’d give a nod to what I thought was a second-grade rite of passage: “Hey, Ben—next year handwriting!”

I might as well have said “ciphering.”

Gayle corrected me: “Ben isn’t going to learn that.” As if commenting on the weather, she added: “When will he need to know it?”

Ben, who goes to one of the best schools in Fairfax, won’t be taught penmanship.

Later that day, I picked up one of those ballpoint pens where the ink comes out wet like a fountain pen, and wrote in my journal: “Found out this afternoon, kids in the future, no more script.” I looked at what I’d jotted down. In its loops and points, its irregular T’s and Y’s, it was a link to the Saturday grocery lists, homework sign-offs, and clockwork birthday cards of my father’s long-stilled hand.

The shared traits on the page are undeniable, though no cataloged genome links them. Dad was a lefty; I’m a righty. And he had nothing to do with teaching me to write—I still have the report cards from Our Lady of Peace on which Sister Mary Admirabilis gave me B’s in penmanship. Neither nature nor nurture fully fuses my hand to my dad’s. Yet as if directed by destiny, each sentence I put to paper traces its bloodline to Joe Curry.

He was a man whose signature on checks regularly authorized small sums to be sent to charities, even as my mother prepared Spam for dinner. A man so gentle that his letters to his father from World War II described shock at his platoon’s profanity. A man who, when I asked as a young boy, “Who won that war, Daddy?” replied, “Jack, no one wins a war.”

I now realize how special—fragile even—my cursive connection to him is in today’s world. It’s a world where 75 percent of students taking the SAT submit essays written in printed letters. Where Fahrney’s, the fine pen shop that’s been in downtown DC more than 80 years, offers a cursive “clinic”—for adults.

There’s an argument for letting script die, replaced by the clarity of texting, Microsoft Word, and Twitter. The extravagant variations in penmanship—epitomized by the doctor’s illegible prescription, consecrated in the Founding Fathers’ quill-penned principles at the National Archives—are evidence of handwriting’s impracticality. Let’s face it, more often than not it’s a scrawl. But it’s my scrawl. The LOLs and BTWs of my text messages look exactly like everyone else’s.

Dad has been dead many years, but I’ve saved his writing. Courtship notes written to my mom as he took the subway back home to the Bronx after a date, his hand steady despite the rattling of the train. Letters to me the year I worked at sea. His dispatches came by a mail so slow that while I was in the South Pacific reading of someone’s death back home, he was in the United States writing that someone else had had a baby. All in a hand that’s now, gratefully, my own.

Jack Curry (, former executive editor of USA Today’s Sunday magazine, consults for corporate philanthropies and nonprofits on branding and media strategy.

This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.