Learning to write
THE winter I was nine years old, I made another advance toward the top of the ladder, in the circumstance of learning to write. I desired and pleaded to commence the chirographical art the summer, and indeed the winter before; for others of my own age were at it thus early. But my father said that my fingers were hardly stout enough to manage a quill from his geese; but that, if I would put up with the quill of a hen, I might try. This pithy satire put an end to my teasing.
Having previously had the promise of writing this winter, I had made all the necessary preparations, days before school was to begin. I had bought me a new birch ruler, and had given a third of my wealth, four cents, for it. To this I had appended, by a well-twisted flaxen string, a plummet of my own running, whittling, and scraping. I had hunted up an old pewter inkstand, which had come down from the ancestral eminence of my great grandfather, for aught I know; and it bore many marks of a speedier and less honorable descent, to wit, from table or desk to the floor. I had succeeded in becoming the owner of a penknife, not that it was likely to be applied to its appropriate use that winter at least; for such beginners generally used the instrument to mar that kind of pens they wrote in, rather than to make or mend those they wrote with. I had selected one of the fairest quills out of an enormous bunch. Half a quire of foolscap had been folded into the shape of a writing-book by the maternal hand, and covered with brown paper, nearly as thick as a sheepskin.
Behold me now, on the first Monday in December, starting for school, with my new and clean writing-book buttoned under my jacket, my inkstand in my pocket, a bundle of necessary books in one hand, and my ruler and swinging plummet in the other, which I flourished in the air and around my head, till the sharpened lead made its first mark on my own face. My long white-feathered goose-quill was twisted into my hat-band, like a plumy badge of the distinction to which I had arrived, and the important enterprise before me.
On arriving at the school-house, I took a seat higher up and more honorable than the one I occupied the winter before. At the proper time, my writing-book, which, with my quill, I had handed to the master on entering, was returned to me, with a copy set, and paper ruled and pen made. My copy was a single straight mark, at the first corner of my manuscript. "A straight mark! who could not make so simple a thing as that?" thought I. I waited, however, to see how the boy next to me, a beginner also, should succeed, as he had got ready a moment before me. Never shall I forget the first chirographical exploit of this youth. That inky image will never be eradicated from my memory, so long as a single trace of early experience is left on its tablet. The fact is, it was an epoch in my life: something great was to be done, and my attention was intensely awake to whatever had a bearing on this new and important trial of my powers. I looked to see a mark as straight as a ruler, having its four corners as distinctly defined as the angles of a parallelogram.
But, O me! what a spectacle! What a shocking contrast to my anticipation! That mark had as many crooks as a ribbon in the wind, and nearer eight angles than four; and its two sides were nearly as rough and as notched as a fine handsaw; and, indeed, the mark somewhat resembled it in width, for the fellow had laid in a store of ink sufficient to last the journey of the whole line. "Shame on him! " said I, internally, "I can beat that, I know." I began by setting my pen firmly on the paper, and I brought a mark half way down with rectilinear precision. But by this time my head began to swim, and my hand to tremble. I was as it were in vacancy, far below the upper ruling, and as far above the lower. My self-possession failed; my pen diverged to the right, then to the left, crooking all the remainder of its way, with as many zig-zags as could well be in so short a distance. Mine was as sad a failure as my neighbor's. I covered it over with my fingers, and did not jog him with a "see there," as I had vainly anticipated.
So much for painstaking, now for chance. By good luck the next effort was quite successful. I now dashed on, for better or worse, till in one half-hour I had covered the whole page with the standing, though seemingly falling, monuments of the chirographical wisdom of my teacher, and skill of myself. In the afternoon a similar copy was set, and I dashed on again as if I had taken so much writing by the job, and my only object was to save time. Now and then there was quite a reputable mark; but alas — for him whose perception of the beautiful was particularly delicate, should he get a glimpse of these sloughs of ink!
The third morning, my copy was the first element of the m and n, or what in burlesque is called a hook. On my fourth, I had the last half of the same letters, or the trammel.
In this way I went through all the small letters, as they are called. First, the elements or constituent parts, then the whole character in which these parts were combined.
Then I must learn to make the capitals, before entering on joining hand. Four pages were devoted to these. Capital letters! They were capital offences against all that is graceful, indeed decent, yea tolerable, in that art which is so capable of beautiful forms and proportions.
I came next to joining hand, about three weeks after my commencement; and joining hand indeed it was! It seemed as if my hooks and trammels were overheated in the forge, and were melted into each other; the shapeless masses so clung together at points where they ought to have been separate, so very far were they from all resemblance to conjoined, yet distinct and well-defined characters.
Thus I went on, a perfect little prodigal in the expenditure of paper, ink, pens, and time. The first winter, I splashed two, and the next, three writing-books with inky puddle, in learning coarse hand; and, after all, I had gained not much in penmanship, except a workmanlike assurance and celerity of execution, such as is natural to an old hand at the business.
The third winter, I commenced small hand, or rather fine, as it is more technically denominated; or rather a copy of half-way dimensions, that the change to fine running-hand might not be too sudden. From this dwarfish course, or giant fine hand, — just as you please to call it, — I slid down to the genuine epistolary and mercantile, with a capital at the head of the line, as much out of proportion as a corpulent old captain marching in single file before a parade of little boys.
Some of our teachers were accustomed to spend a few minutes, forenoon and afternoon, in going round among the writers to see that they held the pen properly, and took a decent degree of pains. But the majority of them, according to present recollections, never stirred from the desk to superintend this branch. There was something like an excuse, however, for not visiting their pupils while at the pen. Sitting as they did in those long, narrow, rickety seats, one could hardly be got at without joggling two or three others, displacing a writing-book, knocking over an inkstand, and making a deal of rustle, rattle, and racket.
Some of the teachers set the copies at home in the evening, but most set them in school. Six hours per day were all that custom required of a teacher: of course, half an hour at home spent in the matters of the school would have been time and labor not paid for, and a gratuity not particularly expected. On entering in the morning, and looking for the master as the object at which to make the customary "manners," we could perceive just the crown of his head beyond a huge stack of manuscripts, which, together with his copy-setting attention, prevented the bowed and courtesied respects from his notice. A few of the most advanced in penmanship had copper-plate slips, as they were called, tucked into their manuscripts, for the trial of their more skillful hands; or, if an ordinary learner had for once done extraordinarily well, he was permitted a slip as a mark of merit, and a circumstance of encouragement. Sometimes, when the master was pressed for time, all the joining-handers were thus furnished. It was a pleasure to have copies of this sort; their polished shades, graceful curves, and delicate hair lines, were so like a picture for the eye to dwell upon. But, when we set about the work of imitation, discouragement took the place of pleasure. "After all, give us the master's hand," we thought; "we can come up to that now and then." We despaired of ever becoming decent penmen with this copperplate perfection mocking our clumsy fingers.
There was one item in penmanship which our teachers generally omitted altogether. It was the art of making and mending pens. I suffer, and others on my account suffer, from this neglect even at this day. The untraceable "partridge tracks," as some one called them, with which I perplex my correspondents, and am now about to provoke the printer, are chargeable to my ignorance in pen-making. It is a fact, however some acquaintances may doubt it, that I generally write very legibly, if not gracefully, whenever I borrow, beg, or steal a pen.
Let not the faithful Wrifford, should his eye chance to fall on this lament, think that I have forgotten his twelve lessons, of one hour each, on twelve successive, cold November days, when I was just on the eve of commencing pedagogue for the first time — (for I, too, have kept a district school, in a manner somewhat like "as it was") — I have not forgotten them. He did well for me. But, alas! his tall form bent over my shoulder, his long flexile finger adjusted my pen, and his vigilant eye glanced his admonitions, in vain. That thirteenth lesson which he added gratis, to teach us pen-making, I was so unfortunate as to lose. Lamentable to me and to many others, that I was kept away.
I blush while I acknowledge it, but I have taught school, have taught penmanship, have made and mended a hundred pens a day, and all the time I knew not much more of the art of turning quill into pen, than did the goose from whose wing it was plucked. But my manufactures were received by my pupils, as good. Good, of course, they must be; for the master made them, and who should dare to question his competency? If the instrument did not operate well, the fault must certainly be in the fingers that wielded, not those that wrought it.