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Chelsea O'Byrne

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This back-to-school week, First Person looks inside the hearts of teachers and students.

My seven-year-old heart longed for the prize, the prettiest of the pocket-sized religious cards sitting on the blackboard ledge.

In 1961, at École Monseigneur Valois in Pierrefonds, Que., a perfect spelling test or extra neat work allowed you to choose first and score a picture of the Virgin Mary, cloaked in graceful blue folds. Or, even better, our Lord of the Sacred Heart, handsome and blue-eyed with shoulder-length chestnut locks, his crimson heart of purity shining on his chest. Average schoolwork meant you had to pick through the remainders – minor saints in mud-brown robes or sombre crucifixion scenes.

I managed to earn a few beauties in my favourite subject: penmanship.

Although I paid dutiful attention to catechism, what truly inspired me was the band of curling letters circling the room above the blackboard – real grown-up handwriting from A to Z. How I loved gazing at those elegant black loops on crisp white cards. How I yearned to be done with arithmetic and dive into those upper and lower case curlicues.

Our teacher and master scribe, Mme. Leblanc, was a neat, petite woman in a sharply pleated skirt, with tight curls framing her face. In a prelesson ritual that made me tingle with excitement, she handed out shiny nibs, little pots of blue-black ink and grey blotting paper. Once every student sat with a poised stylus, ready for action, she pushed her cardigan sleeves above her wrists and approached the blackboard with a kind of reverence. Even as seven-year-olds, we understood that this lesson was serious business. With a five-pronged chalk holder, Mme. Leblanc swept left to right, making rows of white lines on the board. Chalk in hand, she demonstrated how to make the letters, calling out the steps for reversing your pen’s direction and reminding us to space our joined letters evenly.

With slow careful strokes and the tip of my tongue protruding between pressed lips, I formed swirls and tails along the thin aqua lines of my copybook, finishing off with a careful blot of the drying ink. Never mind legible – I aimed for smudge-free, perfect reproduction of the models around the room. Yes! My cursive writing bloomed into a thing of beauty. With some peacock blue ink and an extra flourish or two in the capital letters of my name, I soon invented a stylish signature. My gateway to the world of grown-up communication.

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My plump, perfectly executed signature didn’t change much over the ensuing decades, even as I learned to use a typewriter in college and a computer at work. As a public-school teacher, I saw how the practice of good penmanship was fading from children’s lives. Many schools were dropping formal cursive-writing programs from their curriculums, even though calligraphy persisted as a hobby.

After I hit motherhood, maternal desire to help my child succeed led me back to those early handwriting lessons. By the time my son was 9, his keyboarding skills amazed me, but his cursive writing resembled a jumble of knots and scratches on the page. We spent one summer in daily 15-minute sessions with a copybook and pen: handwriting practice rewarded with dimes in a jar for Popsicles or slushies.

My little boy sat at the kitchen table day after day, dragging his pen across the paper to please his mother and earn a treat. In spite of the frozen-sugar incentive, my patient attempts to encourage good penmanship didn’t have much effect. Today, my son is a software developer with a job title I barely understand. He keyboards at the speed of light and signs paper documents with a signature of still awkward squiggles.

Although my usual implement is now a plastic ballpoint, my love of pen and ink remains. Reading a familiar script can stir memories and bring me joy. My mother still speaks to me through faded ink in the kitchen when I make dishes from her handwritten family recipes. I pore over the lists of ingredients on the stained index cards in my mother’s hand, her small tight letters graced with drips from home-cooked meals of the past.

Handwriting is a romantic device my husband still uses in our third decade of marriage. Tucked away in my bedside table are dozens of anniversary and Valentine’s Day cards from him, his steadfast message of love penned in upright angular letters inside the fold. Those handwritten words above his name tell a lot about why our love story endures as we approach old age.

Friendly posts and family pictures on social media can be heartwarming, but they’re transitory. Handwritten notes have the potential to mark possessions as keepsakes. How I cherish that book with an affectionately worded inscription at the front, a gift from my sister. Or the scrapbook of dated photos given to me by a long-time friend, with funny notations capturing our years of camaraderie. Or the handwritten letter of thanks from my former boss and mentor. She wrote to me in fountain pen and later gave me one as a gift when I left for a new job. As someone else’s new boss, I adopted her example of occasional notes of thanks to staff, written out in longhand.

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These days, my fingers usually hover over a keyboard. Like most people, I communicate with the wider world via e-mail, post or tweet. Pixels that drift away into virtual clouds. But when I want to share a memorable message with someone important, I reach for a pen. As I learned to do half a century ago, I create a ribbon of loops and curls to carry my words. A note you can hold in your hand or save in a drawer and revisit in years to come.

Karen Zey lives in Pointe-Claire, Que.

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