My students squint desperately at my handwritten comments on their papers. They turn the paper sideways as if a fresh angle might lend clarity. They shrug or giggle and fold the paper up, resigned to the grade and regrettably impervious to the constructive criticism I carefully crafted the previous night.
“I can’t read this, Simmons,” a student sometimes announces. I hustle over to translate and feel the warmth of real shame creeping along my neck when it takes me more than a few seconds to figure out what I’ve written. I can read my own writing, but even I am sometimes momentarily baffled by what I behold.
I have terrible handwriting. Being left-handed and not particularly committed to tidiness in any capacity, my scribbling, whether cursive, print, or some ugly amalgam, never evolved significantly from my elementary-school days. If anything, it is now worse.
At age 8, I pressed down hard with a pencil, etching out a gnarled, bent script twice as slowly as my peers. The bottom ridge of my hand smudged the letters as I progressed. Dark patches stained my hand where it met the graphite-marked paper. When I tried to write faster, my sentences dipped and twisted, defying the faint red-and-blue lines that were there to guide me. The swoops of my cursive blurred together in spiky mountain ranges that would swell and then suddenly begin to shrink as if receding into the distance. Sometimes only the first and last letters were clear. An “e” might look like an “l” or even a lower-case “b.” When I wrote quickly, teachers might interpret my even messier penmanship as a function of my messy brain. Slowing down meant putting the brakes on the parade of ideas that always charged through my head when I had the opportunity to write. I chose to speed up at the risk of alienating readers. And I still thank the teachers who did not judge me in those pre-word-processing days, those who took the time to decipher my book reports and look past the ragged presentation to soak up the prenaturally pretentious drivel they contained.
As a 12th-grade literature teacher, I am paying for the choice I made to neglect my penmanship – like the once-young drunk who finally, in old age, has to confront the ailing health his habits caused.
When I write on the board, my lines snake around crookedly. Attempts at large block letters parody a kindergartener’s boldest efforts. With sadness, I’ve accepted the possibility that my awful handwriting may distract students and even impede their ability to learn.
A student once wrote me a note at the end of a school year: “I like your teaching, but I think you need to practice your writing.”
I laughed when I read it. I know how to write, I thought. The irony tickled me: I was a writer who struggled, not with writer’s block, but with the physical act of writing. Hadn’t that warped text been my calling card since the third grade? Later in school, hadn’t I even taken pride in it, seen it as a signifier of my artiness, equivalent to eccentric dress or chartreuse hair? I stuck the note to the side of my fridge. But after re-reading it every day for the past three years, I don’t laugh anymore. When I was a student, my bad handwriting was a quirk. In my work, it’s a handicap.
To overcome it, my students and I have had to work together.
Sometimes I type separate sheets of comments and staple one to each student paper. That takes a lot of time and burns through my hoarded reams of paper at an unsustainable rate. Sometimes I email the comments, but not every student has access to email at home. Plus students like seeing the papers marked up. The text-to-text interaction helps them connect specific suggestions and praise to what they actually wrote. When I do mark up a paper, it often looks as if the paragraphs have been gunned down and are hobbling around the page, leaking spurts of red, green, or blue blood. Students have learned to follow up with me in order to decode my comments. I frame this as a good metacognitive exercise in class, something students and teachers should do anyway. “Come see me about your papers,” I say, and many do, slipping in through the open door before school or during lunch to get a better understanding of what I wrote. In doing so, they also learn why I wrote what I did. However brief, the one-on-one conferences help me build better relationships with students, especially those most terrified of writing.
I write little on the board, relying on projections instead. When there is writing to be done, whenever possible, I have students do it, which reinforces the student-driven classroom atmosphere I want to foster. The ancient cliché of the taskmaster teacher ordering students to copy down her military-straight rows of script predates document cameras, PowerPoint presentations, and a heightened emphasis on the value of social learning.
As the year progresses, my students become more proactive and take on more classroom responsibilities related to writing. In addition to writing on the board, they handle any large posters or signs that need to be created by hand. When it’s time to pass out a new novel, students create the chart of names and corresponding book numbers. I often don’t even have to ask for volunteers. It’s simply understood that Simmons will need assistance with anything involving a pen, marker, or pencil.
I’m no longer amused by my problem, but I’m thankful for it. The process of acknowledging and facing a life-long flaw has given me some immediate perspective on the academic challenges my students face, most being infinitely more complex and daunting than bad handwriting (although a few give me a run for my money in that department, too). I have students who learned English four years ago. I have students with learning disabilities who struggle to process language when they listen or read. Every day, they have to figure out strategies to keep from being left behind. They have to take advantage of every resource and collaborate with teachers on learning plans that work for them and permit teachers to assess them fairly. It’s not that I’m a bad example if I don’t work hard to bridge the gap my handwriting threatens to create. It’s more that I’d be foolish not to learn from their good example, their sense of urgency and diligence.
All teachers have flaws. Some lack imagination. Some are disorganized. Some have annoying voices. Good teachers recognize their flaws and reflect on ways to improve all aspects of their craft. Students know that their teachers aren’t perfect, but yet many teachers don’t apologize when they get angrier than they should in class, or admit to possibly losing a paper when a student repeatedly insists it was turned in. Some teachers fear that any acknowledgement of error will result in a dramatic hemorrhaging of authoritative capital. This is not the case. Yes, my flaw (well, the one that this essay concerns) has given me greater insight into my students’ struggles, but I’ve also found it refreshing to publicly address a problem I face when surrounded by students who obsess over theirs. The students have been graded and critiqued for 12 years. Their skills are dissected, their room for growth established again and again. They know fallibility when they see it. Allowing them to help me cope with my problem shows I am honest; it shrinks the divide between us, making me more approachable and authentic. Our relationship becomes more of a partnership. I’d rather have that than perfect handwriting.