Of pencils and the pain of writing..

One of the skills I developed as a Primary School teacher was to be able to walk into a classroom full of children and identify those individuals who struggled with the mechanics of handwriting. There are children , and consequently adults, for whom the process of transferring thoughts from the mind , down the arm and onto paper in the form of script is physically painful. The causes of this are not always obvious.

I can watch a child writing and diagnose pain in the fore-arm and across the shoulders, let alone in the head. This always evinces surprise in the subject. “How do you know?” This can be the trigger for a discussion and the passing on of a few tips on how to ease the pain. It may not eliminate the core of the problem but can ease the pain.

Believe me the pain is real. It is not only physical but can be very emotional. The physical pain is caused by  muscular tension caused by the stress of performing.

I will usually be quizzed as to how I know what is going on and as part of the explanation I tell my own story:

I do not have any memory of my first day at school but I do have memories of that school. I cannot tell you the name of my first teacher nor the name of the Head master but I can tell you that I was scared of them both and of the results of their complaints about me.

I always found handwriting difficult and in those days of austerity materials were thin on the ground. Every line on every page had to be filled and then we had to write on the covers, both inside and out.

My sin, apart from not writing enough, was to break pencil points. No sooner had I put the point to the paper than it snapped and the pencil had to be sharpened, only to be broken again.

“Next time you break a pencil on purpose you will go to the Big Class and see the head master.” the whole class of five year olds must have heard the threat.

Of course the inevitable happened. The point snapped.

In tears I chewed at the wood desperately trying to sharpen the pencil myself. I can still see the results in my mind’s eye.

Of course my “stupidity” was discovered and revealed to the class. Sniggers and laughter followed and I was marched to the Big Class where I was held up to ridicule again, “My boys do not do stupid things like that,” is the comment that stuck. I remember thinking that he meant his own sons.

In the playground I was rescued by Sarah Amies, daughter of the farmer up the road (years later I realised just what the relationship between Uncle Bernard and my mother was by the way). Of course no-one could rescues me from the consequences at home.

There are other painful memories of handwriting connected with steel nibbed dip in pens and “…spiders crawling across you book.” and later being the only person, aged 15, out of a school of 8OO pupils to have special handwriting lessons with the Art master every Thursday. How he loathed me and ,eventually, I him.

At nineteen years of age the veil was lifted. The surgeon, who had corrected my squint at age six, prescribed lenses to correct my astigmatism and I found that I could write.

Little wonder, then, that as a teacher I was always more considerate than most of my colleagues towards the unfortunate children who found the act of writing difficult. Thsi was reinforced when my own son suffered.

An exercise for you: take a pencil in your hand using the “tripod grip” relax the grip:

place your other hand gently on the muscle of your forearm just below the elbow …the thickest part of the arm…. and now grip the pencil hard between the three digits.

You should feel the muscle tense. Now you know why people feel pain when writing and where they feel the pain. Note also the White finger nail effect when you grip too hard.

There appears to be a connection of this tension with, dyspraxia, dyslexia and visual stress.

Well, when it comes to dyspraxia I still cannot hit a tennis ball properly….. as for riding a bike….. that was almost impossible as a child and my wife still laughs at me on a bike.


7 Responses to “Of pencils and the pain of writing..”

  1. padmum Says:

    Thank you for this extremely informative and educative post.

    It has really opened my eyes to the problem of handwriting.

    I am going to feature this on my Facebook account if this is okay with you. Will wait for your answer.

    Thanks…..BTW I find signing a tension filled chore–one is so scared that you may make a mistake, not sign as you always sign and in official documents, your signature can be rejected as not matching what is on record.

    Using the computer has had a major effect on my writing skills….it has helped me become much more expressive but has impacted pen and paper relationships!!

    • magpie11 Says:

      Okay I suppose…it’s out there anyway!

      The distinction between writing and Handwriting is so often misunderstood.

      You can be a wonderful writer but have “atrocious” handwriting (and spelling and Grammar too…that’s what editors are for though.)

      I would tell my pupils that there are only three requirements for handwriting:

      1) Speed
      2) Comfort (for both writer and reader)
      3) legibility

      As for practice: Practice slowly and speed comes of its own accord. That was originally said in a book called The Writing Scholemaster published in Elizabeth 1’s reign…..no I don’t remember the author’s name but he gave some wonderful tips which apply even today and he took part in a competition against another calligrapher and won a Golden Quill by writing in some huge number of styles (100 seems to be in my brain)…..

      • magpie11 Says:

        There is a wonderful source book written by Christopher Jarman;
        The development of handwriting skills: A book of resources for teachers

        It is good….I have had both the copies I owned purloined.

  2. Grannymar Says:

    You could have been writing about me! This post explains so much for me. Perhaps that is why I was always so frightened of the ‘blank page’.

  3. Rummuser Says:

    I had a good handwriting and was always complimented for it. 14 months ago, I developed right ulnar palsy and out went that skill. I now struggle to write anything manually and it is a wonder that so far, my signatures on cheques have passed muster.

    This post however has been very educative. Thank you.

    • magpie11 Says:

      I can’t imagine how that must be for you. Your creativity in writing is not affected it seems.
      What is the particular cause of your palsy? Seems that I must be aware as a diabetic.

      I’m always amazed when people compliment me on my handwriting given my history.

      As a teacher I have have had to lean different cursive styles.
      Originally I was taught something akin to copperplate. My first teaching post required that I learn Marion Richardson then I had to learn a “Modern Round Hand” (of which there are various versions). The resulting style seems to be a mishmash which changes as I write.

  4. Rummuser Says:

    A prolapsed sixth vertebra caused the palsy. The prolapse was due to a more than normal stretch during a yoga asana practice.

    I was taught to write English and Tamil in a Montessori school, both block letters and running hand writing as it was called here then, which as you would know, uses different than usual methods. My late mother had saved up some of my handwriting exercise books from those days and when she moved in with me had brought those with her to show my late wife and son. Both were duly impressed!

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