A word about my handwriting, with apologies to Shakespeare

Back when I was at Napier’s Nelson Park School, a large-ish amount of time ago, I was always picked on by the teachers for writing with the wrong hand. The problem assumed crisis proportions in Standard 3, where kids had to write with fountain pens. Such pens were, of course, essential to a Proper Education and the school demanded that all kids used them. It was The Rules.

What this meant for me was that everything sputtered, smudged, or I had to write with the pen crooked around. But that wasn’t allowed either – it had to be done the Proper Way with the pen held at the Proper Angle, or swift punishment would follow. Finally the teacher figured out the problem. It was simple. Left-handers need ballpoints with quick-drying ink – which, of course, were available. So the answer was obvious. That’s right – if the school bashed me enough, I’d choose to just flip hands and start using my right hand like normal people, so I could use a fountain pen.

I tried to make it work – the alternative was a world of endless punishment. But I no matter what I did, I couldn’t control the pen with the Good Hand, and all that the effort did was make things worse. Now, this might have been because I was heavily left-hand dominant and it was physically impossible – all it did was induce loss of motor co-ordination. But the school knew best. Anybody could write with their right hand, they just had to choose. It was all my fault, and I richly deserved the endless punishments, call-outs, humiliation, sarcasm and abuse. Why wasn’t I choosing to obey the teacher and just flip hands despite every punishment they could muster? Why? Why? I had no idea, but not knowing was merely the road to further punishment.

The abuse came to an end when I left Nelson Park School. The next school allowed ballpoints and the problem went away.

William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I was far from alone. A couple of other kids in my class were smashed so hard for being left-handers that they ended up stuttering. None of the teachers, to my knowledge, were ever held to account. And I never did learn how to write with my right hand. But the school did manage to damage my ability to write with the left. Still, I’m pretty sure I could still write down what the teachers were back then – let’s see if I can make a legible ‘c’, then the ‘u’… and an ‘n’… With apologies to Mr Shakespeare and that hilarious dialogue from Twelfth Night, of course.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021

12 thoughts on “A word about my handwriting, with apologies to Shakespeare

  1. Ah how times have hopefully changed! My wife growing up in Fredericton, NB, Canada experienced the same pressures and somehow endured but it did change shortly after our cohort finished so some of our younger( we are 71) friends did not receive punishment for being left handed. SO glad it didn’t dampen your enthusiasm for writing.

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    1. Writing (as an expression of concepts) was luckily unaffected… and I was still able to express it after the school damaged my ability to hand-write. I taught myself to type.


  2. Thankfully things have changed. We had 2 left handed children and they managed to grow up in 80s UK without quite the difficulty you had. It was still harder for them.
    I once tried for a while regularly writing with my left (weaker) hand and it was just so hard that I didn’t persevere for long. Our brains are wired a particular way and it is very hard to go against this.
    If only teachers would always seek to bring out what is naturally within, rather than seeking to impose ideologies of what is right.

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    1. The New Zealand school system, back then, was concerned only with forcing children into a one-size-fits-all mould, and if they wouldn’t fit then they had to be broken. A lot of damage was done and I hesitate to think about the degree of potential lost along the way. The worst of it was that this system cultivated a sadistic sub-culture among the teachers; inevitable, perhaps, when a system emerges by which one group is defined as having total power over another.


  3. As an ex-teacher, I apologise for all teachers everywhere. 😦 The fact that they did not know better back then is no excuse.
    Like you, I went to primary school in the era when corporal punishment was seen as ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. I still remember the outrage I felt when every single child in my class, including me, the original miss goody two shoes, was smacked on the hand with a ruler because some /one/ did not own up to something.
    I truly believe that some teachers were actual sadists back then.

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    1. No need to apologise! Time has moved on. The teachers of the 1960s-70s are not those of today. I agree that those earlier ones were sadists. I suspect universally – Pink Floyd’s ‘Another brick In the wall’ resonates with SO many people!

      At Nelson Park School that sadism also had very, very disturbing overtones. One teacher, particularly, made himself the ‘go to’ guy for other teachers to send kids to for punishment, but was known for frequently touching his fly and trouser front in front of the kids (I remember him doing it at assembly, and the school centenary FB page commemorated the habit). There seems little question about what he was getting out of his power over the kids, and the fact that he was actively going out of his way to be able to hurt as many as he could get at makes his class-front self-touching habit even more disturbing. (I am writing this today, incidentally, despite the way he nearly drowned me one time in the school pool, aged eight – I couldn’t swim and was out of my depth, but he was so terrifying he forced me into the water, and I still remember watching him sniff and walk away as the water closed over my head – no effort to help when he saw I was in trouble. I’m sure he’d have found a way of eliding his responsibility if I’d died).

      He wasn’t alone. Apparently another teacher used to make kids drop their pants in front of class before beating them – presumably to hurt them more. This was illegal even then, but everybody was too scared to say anything. It manifestly had nothing to do with education and an awful lot to do with teachers using the power the system gave them to get their jollies at the expense of those the system defined as powerless. It’s a known phenomenon in all such systems.

      Nelson Park, as far as I can tell, was a particularly intense example of the problem, for which I believe the headmaster of the day has a lot to answer. I still remember the time a kid failed to turn up (for which I wouldn’t blame him), but while larking about up town crashed his bike and was severely injured. The headmaster told the school it served him right for wagging. My Dad kept a dossier at the time relative to what was happening to me – which I still have – including names and character notes on the teachers, diary notes of meetings – and the letters that followed when one teacher sent his pupil-enforcers to invade my home and haul me back to school, after hours, so he could keep on punishing me. Gaaaah!

      Here in NZ, efforts are under way to hold accountable those responsible for abuse in state care at the time, but none relative to teachers in the state school system. At this juncture I doubt there’s much point. A lot of what happened – certainly at Nelson Park – was out of line even by period standards, but they got away with it, and for accountability to work the perpetrator first has to know that what they did was wrong. Therein is the hurdle.

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      1. Apart from one awful year at a public primary school [Prep] – where the teachers allowed the kids to gang up on me in the playground and chant ‘Chink, Chink, bloody Chink’ and another teacher who refused to let me go to the toilet because it was ‘close’ to playtime [yes, I wet myself], the rest of my schooling happened in the Catholic school system run by the Mercy nuns. Some of the old biddies were strange, to say the least, but nothing like what you experienced. And no, those school teachers will never be held to account the way historical abuses in childcare are now being prosecuted [here in Australia]. 😦

        I’m just thankful that society at large has become more enlightened. Or perhaps we’ve just been forced to see what was always there, right under our noses. The ugliness lives on in the lives and memories of those abused though.

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        1. The repute of Catholic schools was always that they had exceptionally high standards of education – and I remember my high-school debating team (which I led) always got trashed in the regional finals, several years running, by the local Sacred Heart team, who really were excellent.

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          1. Yes. I had a lot of issues with my all-girl convent school [secondary], but the quality of the teaching wasn’t one of them. Over here, the Catholic school system was always seen as middle of the road between the free public schools and the very, very expensive independents schools.

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