Sunday, January 16, 2011

Letters Written in the Language of Pretty

stationery |ˈstā sh əˌnerē|

writing paper, esp. with matching envelopes.
The definition alone conjures up visions of All Things Pretty. Lovely stationery falls under that umbrella. I fell under its spell when I was just a young girl, and dreamed of owning elegant writing paper with my initials embossed in gold. In my little-girl dreams I wrote with an ebony--not black--Mont Blanc fountain pen. Imagine that! What did a kid know about writing snobbery? And where did she learn to be a letter-writing snob? She learned from books! From books and a second grade teacher named Eva Armstrong. Most was learned from books, with a thimble's worth of credit given to old movies. 
My reality was ruled school paper, a pencil, my mother's editing eye and approval, and rather limited little-girl topics. I printed my one-page letters. Two letters meant the second was copied from the first. Names and some events were changed in the name of decency and disguise. There were lots of erasures. My erasing zeal resulted in holes and smears, but I wrote my little heart out.
Penmanship is part of our identity. The truth of that particular law was pounded home and cemented in our grade school DNA by our fifth grade teacher, Irma Bowie, nee Seal as she taught us the importance of penmanship. I learned the importance of a letter written in the language of pretty before I landed in first grade though. My younger aunts, Gloria and Annie Pearl wrote legibly and beautifully. So did my parents, but no one wrote like Aunt Gloria. She was probably my first penmanship teacher. She printed pretty. Her signature was pretty. I wanted to write pretty, too. 
My pretty had to be my own though. So, I set out with a goal from Day One. Day One being the first time I held a pencil. Who knew it would be so hard? Who knew a pretty shiny pencil could be so slippery? Who knew such a thing as writer's cramp existed? I didn't! No one told me. No, I had to learn the hard way, just like every beginner. 
But, I wrote and drew before first grade. I rolled in, armed and trained ahead of the game. I had the privilege of learning the basics early, not just because of my aunt, but because of my sister, Betty, as well. She was two years older, and started school when she was just five. That particular privilege came with living in the state of Alabama. 
Mama and Daddy believed in equal opportunity long before it became a law of the land. I earned a big fat first grader writing pencil when I was three. I pre-paid my debt in full with buckets of hot, envy-laden tears. Those same tears earned me a Big Chief Tablet, to go with my fat pencil. And a girl had to have proper paper. Our parents lived by the sane philosophy for learning that they practiced when it came to childhood diseases. Today I call it the "Davis Trickle Down Effect." Betty got measles? No problem. They prayed I'd get it too. That way we'd be down at the same time. Betty outgrew clothes? I got her hand-me-downs.
So, the second one wants to learn early? She learned from the first one for free. We played school from Day Two. Betty got a Big Chief Tablet? I got one too. I loved those red solid lines and blue dashed guidelines. They taught me to stay within the lines. Lord knows I've lived outside the rigid lines life imposed often enough since then, but guidelines are important for learning. That's why we have rules and rulers. 
Rules create order. Rulers measure how we stand up under those rules in a civilized society. But, it is equally important that we be measured with our own rulers as we're measured with the ones put in place by those who thought them up, tested and proved their worth. We all have start our lives according to most of life's rules, but we always create our own as we live and learn. The makers of the Big Chief Tablet set printed the standardized guidelines for all young  writers. Today, looking at some handwriting, I cannot help but shake my head and wonder. No wonder letter-writing has dropped off. 
But, back in the day, we all had to learn the proper rules for writing. We learned the language of writing. Rules, rules, and more rules. Without them, how would know how to communicate? Learn the basic rules, and we wrote own rules, bent the old ones, added curlicues . . .
And in our learning, Mrs. Irma Seal-Bowie taught us this: "Never let it be said that someone else can write your name better than you." I think every student she taught at George Washington Carver Elementary School took those words to heart, and tried to live up to them. I certainly did. I learned that my signature said more about me than how I dressed. 
No student graduated with poor penmanship. Not even the poorest student failed panmanship class. As we grew, we took proper penmanship right in stride.  Mrs. Seal-Bowie taught us Citizenship and Penmanship. We learned and wrote testaments that reflected this fact: She more than earned her pay.
So, I believe every writer secretly knows that, "A letter should be written in our best hand. A letter should be written in the Language of Pretty. And a letter should be written on stationery created in the Land of Pretty."
Write on, my friends. Write on!
From This Limner

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