“I’ve got a paper here I can’t read. Looks like it was written by a guy…maybe Aaron or Adam…”
“That’s mine,” I would respond to whichever teacher fell prey to my spell that day, snatching the sheet of lines and squiggles from her judging hands.
Yes, it’s true—I have a problem. It’s called cacography: bad handwriting. It’s been an issue ever since I first picked up the mighty pen. My mom, my friends, my teachers: everyone has commented on it. I used to be so embarrassed when other students peered over at me scribbling not-so-sweet nothings.
“Has anyone ever told you that your handwriting is a bit illegible?,” my twelfth-grade English teacher asked me, several months before the AP Language & Composition Exam. “They’re not technically supposed to take your handwriting into account, but it may factor into their subconscious.”
Did she think she was my Psych teacher all of a sudden?
One day we anonymously exchanged in-class essays to grade, and one loudmouth proclaimed to the whole group that she couldn’t read what hers said.
Did she not think the culprit was bound to hear her in a class of fourteen?
But the original shame came from my first grade teacher: “Now everyone look at Trevor*. He’s holding his pencil just right—look at how he gently grips it instead of wrapping his fingers over each other.” Sitting next to Trevor I could feel her eyes darting my way, somehow implicating me as the token bad example. It didn’t help that Trevor was my long-time bully, a title he would smugly hold until he moved away in the seventh grade. Now he’s playing football at Yale. He’s about the last person who deserves to be in that position, but that’s beside the point.
In researching why society gets so hung up on bad handwriting, I found a study, aptly titled, “Poor Handwriting: A Major Cause of Underachievement,” by Linda Silverman, Ph.D. Her main finding is that a lot of “bright underachievers” have “difficult births” and suffer from ear infections in the first few years of life, leading to “sensory-motor integration dysfunction.” Well, from what I’ve heard, I didn’t experience any of these issues as a child, and many of my fellow chicken scratchers didn’t either. I had an ear infection or two in elementary school, but that’s past the initial developmental period. My birth was pretty seamless, too; actually, it was my twin brother who tried to force his way out feet first and ended up being pulled out with a suction cup. There was one time in second grade that my teacher signed me up for special “Resource” classes because she thought I couldn’t read, but it turns out I just didn’t want to talk. Perhaps poor handwriting is correlated with underachievement in some, but it certainly does not cause it. There’s a big difference between cacography and dysgraphia, the latter being the “inability to write coherently, as a symptom of brain disease or damage.” Shyness, not a sensory-motor delay, was my hang-up.
My brother suffers from this same “disorder,” arguably worse than I do, and he doesn’t compensate for it with a little bit of sketching on the side (“Wow, your handwriting is so bad, but your art is so good!,” said my ninth grade art teacher). But Daniel’s not a girl, so society almost expects him to have bad handwriting, at least at first. It expects him to be in the storied troublemaker phase, hoping he will grow out of it some day. It expects me, on the other hand, to be a perfect little angel from the start, only growing more and more civil as I get older. Neither of us quite fits these models.
Ever since I learned my penmanship could never be remedied, I committed myself to breaking as many stereotypes as I could. I stopped taking dance lessons in favor of field hockey scrimmages, I ate like a wild hog on a mission to kill, I roughhoused with all of Daniel’s friends, and I watched endless basketball games with my dad. Today I mostly make fun of women who still expect men to carry all their shopping bags for them, or who fantasize about marrying strong men with broad shoulders, blue eyes, and a faint-worthy smile. I even convinced my grandma to stop asking me to help bake her famous cinnamon rolls. Now she only asks Daniel, who would do anything for a cinnamon roll.
For all the times a TA has asked me to type up my in-class midterm, I can take pride in the fact that they probably thought I was a man when they first read it. No, dear Teaching Assistant, it is I, Amanda Rose Miller, designated jar opener and cliché averter of apartment 416.
My handwriting also serves as a sort of secret code, a special language of sorts, reserved for me and for anyone else who dares decrypt it. I can tell you now that anyone who tries to read my diary won’t get anywhere; that stuff is sealed in a ten-ton vault made of solid gold. Come to think of it, I regret never exchanging notes about crazy kid stuff with Daniel. Then again—while we did share our own verbal language as babies—even he can’t read my mishmash. Nonetheless, it’s entertaining to see what comes out of my friends’ mouths as they attempt to sound it out.
“He…intervention for ranging and cattle?”
“No, ‘The intersection of language and culture.’”
“Oh, wow. Have you ever thought about being a doctor?”
A deficit of manual dexterity has taught me to exercise what little I have to its full capacity, so when I do produce a drawing, or a field hockey goal, or a well written essay, I really treasure it. Art, of course, comes in a variety of packages, very few of which are contingent on Immaculate-Conception-Jesus-Christ-is-this-God’s-handwriting penmanship. We can’t say what perfect handwriting looks like anyway; for all we know, God’s handwriting could look exactly like mine—you don’t know.
I look back at my fourth-grade projects, and if anything, my handwriting has gotten worse. Years of copying down PowerPoint slides will do that to a girl (or a guy, for sure). But in a lot of other ways, I’ve gotten better. I can’t attribute all of that to bad handwriting, but I can say it has helped shape me into the cynical feminist writer I am today. I’ve heard my fair share of groans, gasps, sighs, and even psychological diagnoses in response to my handwriting, but it never really got to me. I just kept on scribbling. If nothing else, my bad handwriting gave me a unique perspective and a voice, and that’s really all an aspiring writer wants. Even if some people can’t see it.
More posts to come as I start law school next week! :D
Top and Skirt: Paperdolls Boutique, St. Louis.
All photos by Alex Zhu.
All photos by Alex Zhu.
*Name changed because I know all of you with your mighty powers of stalking would have looked up "Trevor" here or somewhere else. ;)