Monday, August 9, 2010

but I digress

You have probably already guessed that I am sort of an egghead, if not a full-fledged geek. You may be right. I am a physical chemist whose career has spanned research, teaching and administration. I spent the first 15 years after graduate school doing hard-core research, the next eight years as a professor and I am now the Dean of Science and Engineering. I loved school as a child, and I love school as an adult. I firmly believe that math and science are awesome and you may have noticed that I like to write. The older I get, the more interested I am in all fields- from art to engineering and history to philosophy. I am a university professor/administrator because I never want to leave school. (I tried it once and it didn’t work out!) Given that background, you probably assume that I did well academically and for the most part you’d be right. I recently found my old report cards in a ‘keepsake’ box that belonged to my mother. Aside from the fact that I got upset and cried easily in first grade, I did pretty well overall.

Unless you insist on counting fifth grade.

Fifth grade seems to be a bad year for children. It was awful for me, and as it turns out, it was awful for both of my kids. In my case, I had a teacher who I didn’t like and who really didn’t like me. Until that time, I thought that all teachers liked all children and that all children loved all teachers. Not so. My first bad teacher was named Mr.Winkle. Mr. Winkle was probably a nice man with a lovely wife and adorable children. Other students may remember him fondly. Maybe. But the Mr.Winkle that I knew was really kind of mean. It was because of him that I have earned every possible grade on my report card—all the way from A to F. Here is what happened.

Penmanship has never been my best subject. Maybe I have poor small motor coordination. Maybe I am inattentive to detail. Whatever the reason, I have never gained full control of my pencil or pen. While my writing is often legible, it is never beautiful. As a grade school kid, I knew my cursive was wobbly, but frankly, I didn't consider it worth my time or effort to improve my handwriting. I had this crazy idea, even as a 9 year old, that my ideas were more important than the slant of my letters. Mr. Winkle had a different view. In the first marking period of fifth grade, Mr. Winkle gave me my first “C” and of course, it was in penmanship. This did not make much of an impression on me. However, the situation became more dire in the second marking period. We were assigned an essay for our language arts class. Note that this was NOT a penmanship assignment, it was an essay for language arts. I remember being proud of my essay and eagerly awaiting his comments, which I assumed would praise my ideas and creativity. Really. I remember this vividly.

Well, when he returned our papers, I was dismayed that Mr. Winkle had written just one comment. It was written in scrawly red longhand and criticized my PENMANSHIP. He complained about uneven spacing between letters, about slants going both right and left, and about insufficient tails on my “y’s” and “g’s” He had nothing to say about the content or my cleverness. I was crushed. More accurately, I was pissed. So I walked up to his desk and said, ever so sweetly, “Mr. Winkle, I am sorry but I can’t read your writing. What does this say?” He turned scarlet as he was forced to read me his comment regarding spacing, slants and tails. My implication was clear and I had won the battle.

Nine year olds may win an occasional battle, but rarely win the war. When we got our report cards for the second marking period of fifth grade, I saw his revenge. There in harsh black lettering was the most horrible sight of all – an “F” in penmanship. I knew I was in trouble. I knew this was retribution for being overtly disrespectful, but I also knew my parents would never be sympathetic to my case. I was doomed. When I got home, I threw the report card into the living room where my mother was watching her soap operas and ran into my bedroom, locked the door and hid under my bed.

I expected a pretty bad punishment, but what I got was much worse. My mother was not angry. She did not yell at me. She did not ask how this happened. Instead, she saw how upset I was, tried to comfort me and then (this is the bad part) decided to help me improve my penmanship. So every night after dinner, I had to work with her on handwriting practice until she was satisfied that my spacing was even, by slants were uniform and that I had sufficient tails on the “g’s” and “y’s.” I would have preferred a short quick spanking!

In the third and fourth marking periods of fifth grade, my penmanship grades improved, but only slightly. I earned "D's" on both remaining report cards that year. Boy, that Mr. Winkle could carry a grudge! My mother was clearly surprised that her tutoring efforts paid such meager returns. I could not explain to her what was really going on, and it was not until decades later that she knew the whole story. Fortunately, my other grades for fifth grade were fine and I was promoted to sixth where we were no longer graded on penmanship, much to my relief!

My handwriting is still pretty bad. Once in a while, I get motivated to develop nice handwriting and engage in some handwriting practice of my own. I can last about 10 minutes before I get bored and frustrated. Like the nine year old me, I still think that ideas and creativity are more important than penmanship, although I admire and secretly envy my friends who can have good ideas, be creative, and write beautifully.

Today, I am grateful for the technology that allows me to express my ideas, legibly and neatly, without having to worry about the spacing, slants, or tails on my
"y's" and my "g's."

P.S. This blog was supposed to be about how technology affects the way we keep in touch with friends. I guess I got distracted.


  1. I thought I posted a comment, but I think it got lost in the ether, guess it got googled up. Maybe the technology's not so hot after all.

  2. My dad was obsessive about lettering ... wanted me to print like a budding architect. But he had ATROCIOUS cursive. And mine gets worse by the day. Penmanship is a lovely art and I applaud those who are able to write legibly and beautifully AND express their thoughts clearly and creatively. But I'm a firm believer that it's the content that matters.

    Now who else out there wanted to punch mean Mr. Winkle in the nose? And are you serious about that name? Really?

  3. yup. His name really was Mr. Winkle. The same year, I had a math teacher named Mr. Funk. Really!