Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Third grade was WAY better than second. First, we moved to a house with plumbing.
Second, we lived three skips and a jump from a very nice lake--small, but with a sandy beach and a cafe of sorts that offered pop and juke box music for a nickel each. And third, Mrs. Drugan, the 3rd grade teacher, apparently told my parents that despite poor-to-rotten penmanship, I had considerably more brains than they had assumed.

(There was a downside to that information: my parents, married weeks before the Crash ushered in the Depression, feared unpaid bills above all else, but second to debt, they feared the specter of a Proud Child. They routed out any whiff of Pride as though it were ringworm. The neighborhood boys, the Degnans, shoplifted, broke windows, tormented smaller kids, and smoked by age ten--all laughed at as boyish pranks. But brilliant Chester Hess, who as an adult worked on the Manhattan Project, was considered Proud, and never a smile went his way. Mrs. Drugan's assessment put my parents on red alert.)

Mrs. Drugan never favored me, of course; in my experience, if a teacher ever did favor a student, it would be a pretty little girl whose dresses and fingernails stayed clean, whose Shirley Temple ringlets remained calm, and who did not TALK ALL THE TIME. On my report cards, Mrs. D. reported only that my tongue "ran away with me" and that the below-the-line loops on my "y's" were sloppy. Otherwise,I was "c-o-n-s-c-i-e-n-t-i-o-u-s." I looked the word up, learned to spell it, and apparently took it as a datum of birth, like blood type. I was in my thirties before I ever found out that Mrs. Drugan had hazarded an opinion on brains: my parents certainly were not about to say any such thing in my hearing.

Mother spent some evenings thereafter overseeing my penmanship, with special attention to crisp, sharp "y's". You could have used my "y's" for letter-openers after that. And from third grade on, I had something almost as permanent as a tattoo.

I don't remember the advent of fountain pens for kids, but I know we didn't use dip pens after second grade. Mother had a lady-sized white fountain pen, designed to look like mother-of-pearl but actually sister-of-plastic. My older brother Dave got a handsome Shaeffer pen upon entering high school. And somewhere along the line, I received the first of many fountain pens. Which always, always leaked a little. The result was an slight, permanent indentation, faintly blue despite scrubbing with Lava soap, at the first knuckle of my middle finger.

My father, who had a decent, if somewhat flamboyant, handwriting himself, would occasionally give me a mini-lecture on penmanship. It consisted of the words, "Relax the hand! Relax the hand!" accompanied by loose, floppy motions of his hand, then the command, "Practice!" as he walked away. His own hand was perfectly relaxed, since he hardly ever wrote anything except receipts in pencil in his order book at Montogomery Ward, and never used a pen from one year to the next. Mother paid the bills, signed our report cards, scribbled notes to the milk man, and wrote Christmas and birthday cards. I believe that in that era, penmanship (theory aside) was considered a feminine art, along with tatting and playing the autoharp.

But my hand did not relax. I clung tightly to pen or pencil as to the surviving slab of a life-raft, clutched it and bore down. I broke pencil points, splayed the tips of pens, gouged paper, and of course, splattered ink everywhere. The pens probably leaked because I cracked their barrels in my grip. I was like a miner muscling with pick and shovel: I knew there was treasure in words--there was gold in the stories my father had told me, in the words of the books I was finally learning to read, and somehow, maybe there could be gold in the words one wrote on paper. But at age eight, there was not one single glitter in evidence of that hope in my grubby, blotted papers. So how come I owned more pens than the school principal?

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