Opinion: Kids who can’t read cursive may miss pieces of family history


Can you imagine writing a letter to a teenage grandson, then finding out that he could not read it?

That’s what happened to a friend of mine last weekend. It wasn’t the kid’s fault, you see, problem is that his school has stopped teaching cursive.

Apparently that is happening at some schools here also and I think it is a terrible shame. Nothing will stifle communication between generations more than this. This is a crisis in communication.

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Lately I’ve written more than once about the joys of going through trunks of family letters and enjoying the insights and thoughts of relatives long gone. I cannot imagine the frustration of seeing those pretty bunches of letters held together with ribbons and not being able to read a word of them. I would be so sad.

Old letters are a great source of genealogy bits and pieces. Relationships are clarified in the writing, events are interpreted, and nicknames explained. Journals tell of day to day living, and witness to struggles, successes, and perseverance. Census enumeration just cannot do that.

And recipes, we have to be able to read Grandma’s pie recipe on those well worn cards. It cannot be Thanksgiving without that special dessert.

I remember our family historian who focused on our German roots telling me of the terrible time he had going through very old family letters from Prussia. It seemed that no one was able to translate them to English for him.

Back in the 1930s or so, Germany had changed the style and fonts used in printed books, and changed the style of penmanship taught in their schools. It was done, I believe, to make it easier to communicate with other countries by using letters constructed the same way as the rest of Europe. However this made it harder for younger generations of Germans to understand what the older folks had written.

I asked Springfield resident and talented photographer Marlies Hemmann about that since she had grown up in Germany.

“I had no trouble in school but I remember that I couldn’t read letters from my grandparents when they wrote in cursive,” she said.

That is exactly what I fear.

I journal, you see, for my grandkids. I write them notes about things they do and funny things they tell me. I tell about our travels. I write about their heritage, and history. And I am so afraid that someday when I’m gone they, or more likely their children, will see a journal full of scribbles.

Historians tell me that letters and journals are integral to research about historical events. Will Americans two generations away be only able to read archived email, memes, and tweets to try to understand our generation? I hope not.

Cursive does not have to be perfect. No way. Its beauty is that it is unique and reflects individual style. Our signatures are recognizable and make things official.

Marlies told me that they still teach cursive in Germany and I hope it continues here also.

We still all need to learn cursive to sign our names for voting, petitions, checks, signing to play for the Reds, recording contracts, signing our first book, and that all important life change, signing that marriage license.

We need to encourage members of the youngest generation to learn cursive and to make the effort to develop their own handwriting style and signature. Who knows may be there will be a John Hancock in your family tree.