“How’s your handwriting?” asked Office Manager Audrey from the adjoining room.
The company employing me has put me on Light Duty. For the past eight weeks I have been recovering from a work injury. I broke my back and the doctors say I can’t lift anything heavier than ten pounds, can’t squat, can’t work over my head. That makes me pretty useless as an electrician on a job-site.
Light Duty doesn’t have much meaning in the construction trades. If I were working for an electrical contractor who wanted to bother with such things he might assign me to walk around installing light switches, since that is the height at which I’m allowed to work.
I don’t work for a contractor. I work for a “skilled labor company” which has a stable of workers across the spectrum of construction trades which they hire out to contractors who need extra workers on a short-term basis and don’t want the headache of hiring and training and offering benefits and such. I am, as it were, a rental tool.
No one is only going to rent a tool that can only work at table height with a severely limited range of materials.
Instead I am assigned to the office for the time being. I perform clerical duties: filing, envelope-stuffing, answering the telephone, giving applicants paperwork.
Five people work in this office. Four of them split their days between recruiting workers for the stable and selling our services to area contractors. But it is Audrey who really keeps things functioning in the office. Being in the office has given me an appreciation for what she does—for what all of them do, actually, which involves a skill set I really don’t possess. Such as schmoozing.
There’s not much Audrey can pass along to me, but I’m happy to help when I can. Otherwise the days seem interminable.
“How’s your handwriting?” she asked. I had to tell the truth.
“If you dipped a bird’s talons in an inkwell and let it run across a sheet of paper it would be more legible than my handwriting.”
“Oh, yeah. Sometimes I can’t even read my own handwriting six months later.” It didn’t even occur to me that for whatever purpose she had inquired block printing would have been perfectly acceptable. I can print.
My mind shot off on a tangent.
I know exactly why my handwriting is atrocious, though I have tried, on occasion, to rectify it.
When I was in second grade I switched schools. My father was serving his first tour of duty in Vietnam and when he left the Army billeted us, with hundreds of other military families, at a decommissioned Air Force base in Salina, Kansas.
With five children under the age of seven my mother had her hands full. At some point during the year Dad was in Southeast Asia, Mom decided to move 250 miles to the southeast, to a house my grandfather built near his own. Which required me to change schools.
In my school in Salina we were still using block letters drawn with deliberation between inch-thick rules by a thick pencil clutched in our fists. My classmates in Riverton were already proficient with cursive. My teacher expected me to write cursive.
I learned by the Viking method.
It was about that time I read a biography of Leif Erickson. The author wrote how his father, Eric the Red, taught the boy Leif to swim by taking him to the fjord and tossing him into the water. If the boy could not make his way to the shore he would have been deemed too weak to live.
It was a shocking concept to a 20th Century, middle-class boy more bookish than athletic.
Years later I got a taste of what young Leif must have experienced. My Boy Scout troop had taken a summer trip from Fort Monroe, Virginia to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the anniversary of the battle.
Along the way we visited Hershey—where the street-lamps were shaped like Kisses—and a scout camp in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. There was a mountain lake in the camp and all us boys were eager to take a dip.
Before we could swim the camp councilors had to assess how good a swimmer each boy was. We gathered on a wooden pier and, one by one, jumped into the lake to demonstrate our ability.
Other than public pools my swimming experience, at that time, had been the sun-warmed waters of the Atlantic where they mingled with the Chesapeake Bay or York River. Nothing in my experienced prepared me for that mountain lake. None of the counselors had, either. This was there norm. How could they imagine what a shock it would be to us Southerners?
I leapt from the dock into the crystal waters.
The frigid waters punched the air from my lungs. With a huge, wheezing gasp I struggled for air, sinking beneath the lake’s surface and sputtering back to the top, flailing my arms wildly. Had I been a Viking I would have drowned.
As it was, the counselors relegated me to the shallow parts of the lake. Fine with me. Who wanted to go out into that ice bath, anyway?
I learned cursive in much the same fashion, with as much success.
I taught myself. Teachers throughout my grade school experience gave me grief about my illegible hand.
Students in the digital age might not comprehend what was such a big deal about sloppy handwriting. This student, in schools that required hand-written tests and essays and other assignments wondered the same thing.
The big deal was the fact that penmanship was a graded “subject” on my report cards.
In the early days teachers assigned us grades of S(atisfactory), N(eeds Improvement), or U(nsatisfactory). Somewhere around 4th or 5th grade they began giving us the more familiar A – F letter grades.
I was an excellent student. I devoured books on my own time and was quite proficient in academics. Yet my parents were always dismayed by the C I earned in Handwriting. Those Cs kept me from being a straight-A student.
My mother grew up in a house where she was punished for earning less than an A in any class. I was her eldest child, and my parents had me tested for IQ (I had one), so they knew what my capabilities were. The bar was set pretty high.
Every report card evoked frustration about the C. For my parents, and for me.
With an academic subject I could have applied myself harder, studied more, brought up the errant grade. With penmanship it was a matter of making my muscles do something for which they were unsuited.
Ultimately my inability to improve my handwriting—and resultant degradation of my grade point average—smothered my motivation to excel. I became a lazy scholar. I learned to loathe the word potential. I was still adequate as a student, but I didn’t see any point in working for an A when I could improvise a high B. I developed a bad habit of doing the minimum possible to get by in school. For better or worse I was bright enough that even half-assing I still achieved some pretty good grades.
That sounds like an excuse. Maybe it is. And no doubt I could forge new habits even this late in life.
But I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone differently had someone taken time to teach me to swim instead of watching me drown.