If I could take it back, Miss Halstead, I would,
that moment decades ago after you called
me to the front of the class to commend
the execution of my y’s, repeating your go-to
proclamation: “Cursive is a continuous line …”
Riley McGuirk crossed his eyes, meaning I was
with or against them so I stuck out my butt,
forced forward my chest mocking you,
Miss Halstead, and a wave of giggles rumbled
over desks. The hurt in your eyes was a surprise.
I had caused your powdered countenance to crack,
and the difficulty of your life rushed over me,
us children sticking our tongues at your back
as you pushed your squeaking walker down the halls.
That was punishment enough.
But I appreciated the detention where I copied
sentences in cursive, trying to make it up
to you, Miss Halstead, looping back, looping
forward, pausing at the end of sentences to dot
my i’s, cross my t’s, while the other kids
broke out along tree-lined blocks that fanned
from school. They would be climbing, sliding
down plowed snow hills, stomping iced-over
puddles for the scintillating crack, and Riley
would be stealing another girl’s hat to toss high.
That was winter ‘73 after 12 days of Christmas
bombings crumbled Hanoi and our troops trickled
in from Vietnam. It left Suzie’s dad without a leg,
Stan’s sister an addict. It brought squalls to
unearth mulching leaves rising to our classroom.
I was learning. The indecipherable script. My own,
the world’s, and you had something to teach me,
Miss Halstead. Everything about you a past era,
your up-do and A-line dresses. Even the polio that
infected you something we’d been vaccinated against.
In detention radiators cranked, and you and
I took turns turning paper. I was safe in my secret.
I loved how cursive adorned the mundane, made
lovely our sentences, how I seemed to lift and
widen as my hand looped and curled.
Yet when you presented me with the fountain pen,
Miss Halstead, in front of the class, “given only
to devoted students of the craft,” you said solemnly,
I melted under the snickering. What could
a 4th grader know of devotion?
I knew only that cursive was old-fashioned,
pretty but unnecessary like china patterns and
silk slips. That was before my family packed our
home on York Road, and I became the new kid teased.
It was before Nixon assured us he was not a crook.
Before we watched his helicopter leaving the White
House lawn then helicopters leaving Saigon behind.
I would soon learn to type and appreciate the efficiency
of getting to the end of a page in 50 words a minute.
It felt more like a gain. I didn’t notice the unraveling.
Miss Halstead, do you recall the sparrows that afternoon?
A string of them swooped onto the windowsill and
started trilling. You cracked a rare smile, and we both
hovered in the song. That was when I realized that beauty,
extraneous as a sparrow, feels like forgiveness.
I think of this today when I can’t read the to-do list
I just wrote. My handwriting has become illegible.
It’s winter again, and the clouds feel fixed. Other wars
are being fought, more lies than anyone can count,
and I snap at my husband for asking what’s wrong.
It won’t change anything. But I pick up my pen to try
again, looping forward, looping back, and the lovely
lettering pulls me along like a rope. Speak to me,
Miss Halstead, of devotion. Remind me to dot my “i’s,”
cross my “t’s.” Tell me again it’s all a continuous line.