Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Little Man of Letters

Just now a little man with an accent drifted into my mind. He was perspiring but did not take off the black raincoat over his dark suit. I’m not sure whether the coat looked shabby or was merely smeared with chalk dust on the arms. I was trying to place the accent, unfamiliar to me as a child; it would not have been French because I had moved from Louisiana and knew a smattering of French, learned from neighbor children. Somehow I imagine that he must have been Spanish or Italian.

I was like him in a way. In the landscape of Kansas, I was profoundly strange. Nobody who talked like me went to Washington Elementary. I was a drawling, sweet-talking astonishment in an era when few people had televisions or traveled far on vacation. Nor did many people move to the heart of the country, although there were a few families who had come from elsewhere—my father had come to teach at Fort Hays State, and so did others. This foreign man in his black suit and I were both as strange as Peggy, a pretty little girl in my class with tiny stubs for fingers. Her father had fashioned rings to fit her fingers, a thing that struck her classmates as cunning and a bit magical.

Perhaps I am wrong; perhaps I have made the man in the black coat foreign in memory. Perhaps we were both strange in having a love for words. He was a traveling penmanship teacher: a circuit rider preaching the Word. In his briefcase were brilliant colored chalks. Never again have I seen sticks of chalk quite so jewel-like. He especially liked to scatter rubies and emeralds, and he reminds me now that memory is a rich and myth-making thing.

I was the penmanship teacher’s pet because I had the most wretched handwriting in the class, perhaps in the entire school. He took me on as a special project. I can remember spending hours in the tiny pink house across from the ball park, laboriously writing the alphabet and then sliding the transparent Palmer alphabet card over my letters to check them. By year’s end my handwriting matched the card.

I wish that I could remember his name. We moved away; we were always moving because a Georgia sharecropper’s son can’t stay still too long. He has to see the world. Of course, it’s hard for a child to remember all the names when they change so often.

The penmanship teacher would come into the classroom while we were somewhere—recess, it might have been—and would have partially written some motto on the board by the time we filed to our seats. He had a lovely hand with Spencerian tendencies and liked to lavishly elaborate the capital letters. His arm moved freely, the decorative flourishes streaming behind his fingers. It seems impossible to recapture a world in which children play out-of-doors or read and hardly know television—where they are held spellbound by a dark-eyed man with a stick of sapphire chalk.

Photo credit: I have borrowed the image of Plymouth Schoolhouse from http://www.travelks.com, the Kansas Travel and Tourism website. The school dates from 1874 and was moved to campus of Fort Hays State in 1977. Penmanship was one of the subjects taught there.

20 comments:

  1. a circuit rider preaching the Word
    Marvelous story, Marly. My first distinct memories of learning penmanship are from another country where the style of script was distinctly different, at an age when I was determined to create my own calligraphy... I didn't score points with the teacher for that, either, but did eventually learn to write in (at least) three styles!

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  2. Lovely story, magic writing as usual.
    " Differences" often provoke special writing; this totally proves the point.
    What a painting! The jewel-like chalks, Peggy with her stubby ringed fingers, her thoughtful dad, the teacher's stream of decorative flourishes...

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  3. Yes, lovely story Marly...I like its slightly surreal edge, and like Jan says, its imagery.

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  4. What a splendid warm fall day it is, and I'm about to go for a walk--just came to peek and see if something I was expecting had arrived and instead found notes from three women who write. I'm glad you liked that memory, mb and jan and clare. It's funny how things surface, years later.

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  5. I was just thinking today how stories are made of moments. A memory here, a brush with a phrase there, and stories come together, changed in a magical way by the art of writing. I think good fiction always has an element of the memory of things said and contacts made in it. This memory would make a lovely start to a very fine novel/novella.

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  6. Ah, Marly...what a lovely spell this gem has cast upon me. Perfect for an early Sunday morning...i feel it has cast a sweeter light around here ... and helped me brush away some old dust and take a comforting glance at a gem or two of my own.

    P.S. Thank you very much for your alert over in the garden. i hope to squeeze in the time to correct and update things. i am finishing up 3 deadlines before i take a little journey-rest.

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  7. Look at all these women who write! Wish I could sit down with all six, but I'm off, into the world.

    Thanks for the ethereal visits!

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  8. Beautiful,odd, haunting,seems so autumnal, and to come from quite another time. Lovely to have you back!

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  11. Lucy,

    Thanks! I'm glad you're back too.

    Susanna,

    I sympathize and empathize with those two deleted comments. It's one of the hardest things about what you're doing. To be a person of fire and energy who has a passion for the material and to feel that you are meeting with people who are cold kindling: hard to accept.

    This sort of thing always reminds me of my father, a sharecropper's son. He left home at 17 and joined the Army Air Corps and went to war. Later on, he got a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. He had the strange and wonderful idea that he wanted to help people like himself--to lift up those who were bright but had been born on deprived ground. But he seldom found signs of an equal fire in his students. He couldn't quite accept that he was a rarer bird than he had thought.

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  12. thanks for youe words of encouragment. I deleted them because I was writing at midnight and I thought they might sound like Bittier Bierce might have written them :P

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  13. I'm a great believer in revision, Susanna. So delete away, as suits you.

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  14. You mention how stuff "surfaces" years later.
    I think THAT'S one of the most wonderful parts about writing...

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  15. Yes, I think it's best to "use up" all one's interior material, because there is always more.

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  16. Incredible explosions of detail. In my morning state, I'm boggled and intensified by the craft and some other quality for which I'm trying to find a way to work in "meta". Not quite at the peak of my mental abilities right now.

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  17. Like the 20,000 Leagues sketches, if I didn't say so. The figures are distinct.

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  18. Lovely story, and the penmanship teacher taught you well, Marly.

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  19. Cate,

    That comment about the signature surprised me more than anything I ever seen, doing the Saturday morning peek around the web! I must say that I laughed. He might disapprove of my handwriting now, since I went a bit beyond the Palmer method...

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.