Thoughts on Penmanship

At the age of eight, I spent a year in France with my family, visiting relatives and making friends, trailing along with my mother to examine cathedrals and museums, hiking with my father in the Vosges mountains to pick wild berries and see castle ruins, discovering the Paris subway system, and going to school. My best friend Anita lived next door and spoke English. Her father was the Ambassador from Finland and she was in my class. School was an exciting adventure for me as I knew not a word of French.

Back in Buffalo, New York, I would have been in third grade. I knew my letters, but had done very little work on writing. I had certainly never used an ink pen and ink well. We used pencils and pencil sharpeners.

And so I was introduced to the Lycée de jeunes filles de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. A large coed class of us youngsters sat on benches at double desks and learned ever so much under the guidance of Madame Norrie. Jean-Michel Coulon was my seat mate. No one was permitted to speak English to me, so I learned French quickly and have absolutely no recollection of any difficulties. We were taught penmanship and math and had daily dictations.

And so this is how it began on my first day: MESSY, and I was startled that the teacher told me so!

A “cahier” was distributed to each of us in which all our subject work was recorded.Jan13-2013Cahier.5

My first attempts, October 3rd.Jan13-2013Cahier1 This is what Madame Norrie marked in red: “Poorly written” Jan13-2013Cahier2

Math was no better. “Messy”Jan13-2013Cahier3

Oddly enough, I was not a bit discouraged. I loved the daily feedback. I was also making new friends and figuring out what a foreign language was.

I was intrigued by the French accents and found them very appealing. “chapeau chinois” (Chinese hat) looked like this: â. And this cedilla was the very best: ç . Vowels with double dots above them were pretty nifty too: ä, ë, ï, ö and ü.

The numbers were amazing and taught me a new perspective on things. My sister and I chanted “85!” (followed by loud giggles) throughout the day and drove my parents crazy. 75 is spoken as 60-15, 85 is 4-20-5 and 99 is 4-20-10-9.

Just two weeks later I was understanding what was expected of me and began receiving a few “TB” marks.(très bien for well done) I was thrilled!


I loved the math which incorporated art and geometry. This was a lesson about multiplying that involved boxes of candies.Jan13-2013Cahier5

By February we were working on angles and shapes, using scissors and shiny red paper. Over 60 years later I remember this day!Jan13-2013Cahier6

I remember lessons where we used rulers and protractors, and one particular class when we cut apples into quarters and studied their seeds. I thought (and still do) that Madame Norrie was an angel.

Mind you, once I returned to Buffalo, I received an F on my report card for penmanship! Though neat and accurate, it was not Palmer Penmanship! 😦

I am thinking a great deal about writing these days. My 13 year old grandson has had fine coordination problems due to medical issues when he was an infant. His printing has never been decipherable. After tedious practice and guidance, he is now able to print somewhat legibly. He has never been taught cursive writing. He submits some assignments on the computer…when he remembers. 😉

His 3 1/2 year old sister is fascinated by reading and writing. She recognizes the printed letters in her storybooks and writes her name. But here is the new twist, at least for me. Public schools no longer teach cursive writing at all! And so my daughter is pondering how to proceed. There is research that indicates that teaching cursive writing BEFORE printed writing has advantages. ( I am fascinated by this approach and plan on researching it more.


About fromourisland

Gardener, knitter, wife, mother of 2, grandmother, and lots more.
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4 Responses to Thoughts on Penmanship

  1. tezalizard says:

    For myself, it was a rubber stamp that looked like chicken’s feet with the word MESSY in bold letters beneath it! What a wonderful journey you have shared with us Marie! Kind thanks!

  2. Jeanmarie says:

    Fascinating post, and so cool to see your schoolbook from France! My youngest daughter (age 11), must be one of the last ones to learn cursive writing in our school system. I’m sorry to see it go. What’s going to happen to signatures, I wonder?

  3. Wow, what a wonderful adventure you were on!! An experience you will never forget. Your teacher sounds like she really made a wonderful impact on you and your desire to learn and do well.
    I do understand what it is like to be told that you are doing something wrong at school, when that is how you learned to do it in another country. Our family globe-trottted a bit too. I went from a Canadian in Canada school to an American School in Brazil, where words were not spelled the same (color, colour, neighbor, neighbour, etc…) and questions about the flag made no sense (Name two things on the flag that start with the letter s. ?? I had no idea. The flag had a big red maple leaf on it, and that doesn’t start with s.)
    I’m sorry to hear that your grandson has had some medical issues. Is there therapy to help him? No, schools don’t really teach penmanship anymore. Everything is moving towards being able to use a computer keyboard

  4. Mary Waind says:

    How lovely that you still have these cahiers, Marie!

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