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 Big Chief Tablet

I remember as a child the excitement I felt as I learned new things in school. First it was the alphabet, learning to print each letter with my oversized lead pencil (not really a good idea, as little hands have a hard enough time holding the huge pencil, let alone printing letters for the first time); all done on a Big Chief Tablet. The tablet had bold lines drawn on the paper, top and bottom, with a dotted line in the middle, designed to keep us from drawing outside the lines and encouraging us to shape our letters just so. Printing was relatively easy, especially since the teacher had each letter, both capital and lower case versions (Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, etc.), posted above the blackboard for us to copy as we wrote. The teacher even gave us hints on how to shape some of the more difficult letters. “Students, for the lower case b, draw a straight line up and down and then attach a hump at the bottom of the straight line.” When she didn’t tell us which side of the straight line to attach the hump, the letter d resulted as often as the b.

The letters that actually extended below the line, the g and y for example, were confusing for a while and took some getting used to.  Some of the capital letters ended up looking just like the lower case letters; even though they were supposed to each have individual traits. The capital K looks just like the lower case k, except that it doesn’t. We became aware of the subtle difference after receiving our paper back with a large red D and other assorted red slashes written all over it. It’s a relatively small difference; the arm on the lower case k is much shorter and cannot extend beyond the dotted line on the page, but on the capital K the arm and vertical trunk end at the same point. Now, how many people do you know actually print that way? How soon we forget the lessons we learned as kids.

After mastering the art of printing, we soon graduated to cursive or handwriting in some quarters. Much more difficult than printing, handwriting takes a lot of practice. Getting the loops just right and within the lines takes much effort and time. Thankfully, the oversized pencil and Big Chief Tablet were gone and we now had the yellow, number two pencil and a three-ring binder. We were actually graded on our proficiency. I usually got C’s in handwriting, probably because I was always in a hurry and the letters ended up looking like anything but the chart that was posted at the front of the class.

In handwriting, the capital letters seldom resembled the lower case letters. Take the letter B for example. The capital cursive B looks like a slanted version of the printed B, whereas the lower case cursive b looks nothing like the capital letter; or for that matter the lower case printed b. For a little kid, this can be quite confusing. The capital F looks just like the capital T, but has one added hash mark right across the middle. The capital G doesn’t look at all like the printed version (think General Mills cereal boxes) and is one of the more challenging letters to learn; and it doesn’t resemble at all the lower case g. Probably the goofiest looking cursive letter of all is the  letter Z. At least the capital and lower case versions look very similar, with the only difference being the starting point for the beginning loop. Why all the confusion? Isn’t this just another form of adults tormenting little kids? Why did we have to learn cursive when we had printing down so well? And if we were going to learn cursive, why didn’t we just start there? It isn’t as if printing had to be mastered prior to learning handwriting. Is it just a matter of “that’s the way we’ve always done it”?

I would have to say that handwriting is a lost art today. From what I can tell, based on the way people fill out job applications or looking at a prescription written by a doctor (and they’re supposed to be the smart ones!), I wonder if handwriting is even taught anymore. Maybe it is taught, but not graded; everyone gets an A, whether their writing is legible or not. I remember all too well having to write out, “I will not fight on the playground” one thousand times and how my hand would begin cramping at about the one hundredth rendition. I have to admit that if I didn’t have Microsoft Word or a typewriter, I doubt that I would be writing books or even this post; too much labor involved!