My great-grandfather John Houston McCarn was born in 1865, the year that Lincoln was assassinated. He lived until 1959. That is significant for me because I vaguely remember seeing Grandpa McCarn when I was a pre-schooler. We went to his house in Cullman “town”; I got impatient that the old gentleman was hard of hearing and things had to be repeated all the time.
When I was older, I realized that Houston McCarn was born the year the Civil War ended; I was impressed that I had known a person with that particular direct connection to history.
Grandpa McCarn was a highly educated man and a school teacher. Based on the amount of land and real estate he managed to accrue in Cullman, Jefferson, and Walker counties in his long lifetime, he was a savvy investor as well. Six of his seven children were alive when he died and the property was split in many directions, so none, I suspect, got a lot.
I remember going to the Cullman county community of Bremen with my mother and grandmother to witness an auction of one of Houston McCarn’s rural schoolhouses, just a few hundred yards away from the “home place” where my grandmother Eula McCarn Harbison and her siblings grew up.
Mother remembers Grandpa McCarn’s large library. We have no clue what happened to his books when he died, but I shudder to think of the probability that they were discarded.
The discipline of clear penmanship was part of every school teacher’s domain in the days when Grandpa was teaching and I would look at samples of Grandpa McCarn’s elegant writing in letters and penmanship exercises in my grandmother’s chests of drawers when I was young.
After Grandmother Harbison died, I came to be in possession of two faded sheets of Grandpa’s writing. One sheet has his stylish rendering of the letter “E” with a few sample words starting with that letter. One of the words, coincidentally, is the name “Edward.” Even though the writing predates me by decades, the coincidence is neat.
The second sheet is the rendering of two images of birds. Grandpa McCarn used these images to teach the basic strokes of cursive writing. I have wondered how his students – farm boys and girls in rural Alabama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – reacted to the rigorous discipline of Houston’s exercises in cursive penmanship.
I had the fading sheets of writing framed and they hang in my bedroom. I know they will seem worthless to anyone who runs across them when I am gone, but they are remarkably valuable to me. Houston would probably be stunned to know that his doodling from a century ago or more is hanging in a place of honor in the home of that 4-year-old boy.
Grandpa McCarn’s son-in-law, my grandfather Leonard Harbison, was a farmer’s son from a large family. He lacked a lengthy formal education, but he had mastered Grandpa McCarn’s deliberate and stylized birds and was still drawing them into his old age. I remember Granddaddy Harbison’s skilled rendering of the birds in the margins of books. He lived to age 93, almost as long as his scholarly father-in-law.
Over a decade after Grandpa McCarn died, those of us in Birmingham city schools had weekly classes in penmanship. I remember that in second grade, when we shifted from printing to cursive, it was referred to as “real writing.”
I have thought of it in those terms ever since.
At that time, Birmingham City Schools employed handwriting specialists – teachers who came to schools to ensure that the students’ cursive writing was up to par. In addition, we took weekly handwriting classes as part of our curriculum and were assigned a grade for penmanship in our report cards.
One time in fifth grade, my straight-A report card was marred by a “C” in penmanship from Mrs. Caskey. I think the shock of that “C” instilled in me a life-long commitment to be conscientious about my handwriting. Over the years, it has changed drastically; as I get older, it loses a bit of its confidence, but it’s still a source of pride.
It saddens me that cursive writing is no longer taught to elementary school students. A “good hand,” as it was called in the past, was once a mark of an educated person. Now, I list cursive writing as a “special skill” on my vita.
Nowadays, when I write notes to young people, I struggle with whether or not I should write in cursive. More often than not, I print the text and sign my name in cursive. I worry that I might insult the recipient either way: Am I insinuating they can’t read cursive? or Am I deliberately writing in a style they can’t read?
Literacy in general is a touchy area in dealing with youth, for whom “literacy” may take on a very different meaning than it did when I was their age. A young friend tactfully put me in my place recently. I was accustomed since her birth to sending picture books to her for Christmas and her birthday. The last time I gave her a picture book, she wrote a polite thank you note with a gentle reprimand, telling me, “I am reading chapter books now.”
I got her point, vowed to gift her no more picture books, and was delighted that she knew to send a handwritten thank you note.
“That’s not writing; it’s just typing” (or words to that effect) was Truman Capote’s catty dismissal of the Beat writers in general, and Jack Kerouac in particular, in the 1950s.
I wonder how he might respond to our age of tweets and posts, blogs and instant messaging, to the obsolescence of typewriters and handwriting in general. How might he and his contemporaries react to the fact that cursive writing has become a lost art?