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In this essay, Gloria Hannigan’s dry humor shines a spotlight on what used to be a rite of passage in third grade – learning penmanship and the use of ink. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
My first day of school, I was fascinated by the hole in my desk. I could put my hand in it and wiggle it around. My teacher explained that it was an ink well and that we would not be using it until third grade.
When I reached third grade, new things appeared in my school supplies. There was a fountain pen, bottle of ink, an ink blotter, and an ink tablet for learning penmanship.
The definition for penmanship was: Pen – a utensil for writing; Man – the person using the pen; and Ship – a vessel gliding across the paper as a ship glides across the ocean. Don’t you believe it!
Penmanship was the last class of the week on Friday afternoon. I was eager to try out my new pen. The first thing I learned was that the ink bottle did not fit in the ink well – it fell right through. I guess they changed the size of the ink bottles in the years after the desks were made.
We were shown how to pull up on the small lever on the side of the pen while the pen point was in the ink. When we put the lever down, the pen would inhale the ink and be ready to use.
I filled my pen and prepared to copy the written capital “A” from the blackboard in front of me. When I put the pen to the paper, it decided to burp. There was a big blob of ink on my paper.
Ah, but I had a blotter. I laid my pen down and attempted to blot the blob. Somehow I managed to set my pen too close to my paper and the paper began to drink the ink.
Now I had another blot and a much bigger one. I tried to cover up this blot with my arm and soon had a black cuff on my sweater. I glanced at my friend Bobby across the aisle to see if he had noticed my blunder. He was making this neat row of A’s with such ease that even though I loved him since grade one, I suddenly hated him.
Now the boy behind me discovered how to shake his pen to make black polka dots on the back of my white sweater. I wadded up my paper, looked around to see if the teacher was looking, and stuffed it in the ink well hole in my desk. Finally, I found a use for that hole.
I started with a fresh sheet of paper only to find that my pen was now out of ink. My luck finally kicked in and the bell rang dismissing us from school for the day.
When I arrived home, my mother said, “I see you began penmanship class today. You had better go wash up.” How could she tell?
I looked in the mirror, and could see a black smear across my forehead. Now I learned the definition of indelible. Indelible means you will have a black shadow on your forehead and fingers for the rest of your life, no matter how much you scrub.
I struggled with this mess for the next five years. If I had known how valuable ink blots would become to psychiatrists, I would have saved some of my more memorable ones. I feel that I must have discarded so many ink-blotted papers that I single-handedly cleared a forest somewhere.
Finally, my hero, Mr. Marcel Bich, started marketing the 29¢ Bic ballpoint pen. The TV ads showed it strapped to ice skates and jackhammers and fired through rifles. And it would still “write the first time all the time.”
I still managed to get ink on my fingers and sometimes even on my lips, but my clothes were no longer used as a blotter. The only problem with Bic pens is that they disappear. No matter how many I buy, I can never find a pen when I need it.
Somewhere out there, where the single sock that doesn’t come out of the dryer lives, there must be just as many Bic pens.
Published: Sept. 4, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 21