Headmaster’s Thoughts — May 2015

My signature is truly appalling. It looks like a truncated part of an ECG from a person with an irregular heartbeat. When I write using a stylus on one of those plastic windows in tablets, as some retail establishments ask you to do after you make a purchase with a credit card, it looks like the ECG from someone who is dead. It is virtually a flat line.

Like most things, there is a history behind my terrible signature. I was taught handwriting at a London primary school using, you may not believe this, a dip pen with an inkwell in the desk. Yes, a wooden dip pen with a slide-on metal nib. And we learned to write by connecting dots on paper to make letters. Unfortunately, these letters were written in old-fashioned copper plate with all the curlicues and exaggerated loops that are part of that antique font. No one in their right mind would teach a child to write like that.

The result is that I have bad penmanship and am a slow writer. A few years after this “dip pen write lines over dots” nonsense, they came up with a far superior method of teaching writing in England. At least it appears so to me, because my younger English friends have a very nice handwriting style. They certainly were not at the school I went to.

It is good manners to handwrite birthday greetings, congratulations on marriages and babies, and condolence letters. I try to do the right thing, and each production, each card, takes me about half an hour and usually at least three tries. I go through far too much good stationery. I have such bad handwriting that when I make quick handwritten notes, I have to ask Ms. Vivian Garneier, my assistant, if she would read them to me because I find them indecipherable.

Early on in my academic career I discovered the solution to my problems, namely the typewriter. I probably was the only 11-year-old who would hand in typed paragraphs to my English and History teachers. They looked at them, at least initially, with deep suspicion, sure that somehow this was written by someone older than I. Only when they looked at the quality of what I wrote, were they assuaged into believing that the material produced was mine. This solution did not, unfortunately, help in formal state exams or the scholarship exam to Oxford. It is a miracle they gave me one, and I have wondered if Vivian was one of the examiners in a previous life. All of the exams (except the last) required four handwritten essays in three hours, and there were two exams a day culminating with the dreaded “one-subject, three-hour, no-choice-as-to-title, essay.” You had to write for three hours on the subject of that year: in my case it was “The Moon.”

I still use fountain pens to write the formal letters I referred to above. I still get my fingers inky cleaning off the ink from their ornate nibs after I fill them. All of my four fountain pens have plunger-type fillers. Two of them (the expensive ones) were presents. I like them because they represent a time when every adult who seemed successful whipped one out. Nowadays they are more likely to be Japanese or German than the Parker or Montblanc pens of status from former years, but they all have a time capsule quality that I find appealing. However, they do not improve the legibility of my poor penmanship.

For most of the regular work I do, signing checks or signing typewritten letters, I use blue ink “Uniball” pens. I go through boxes of these. I just do not know where they go but disappear they do. I cannot keep count of how many times I have asked Vivian for another box of 12. Fortunately, she has worked with me for over 30 years and keeps a large stash of boxes. They always disappear before they run out of ink. Always! For some people it is the mystery of the disappearing sock, for me it is the disappearing “Uniball.”

I have heard that there is a vast whirlpool of plastic trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas. This moving monstrosity contains the plastic detritus of our world. So I wonder how the plastic, my plastic pens in particular, got there. I do not live near the Pacific, and it is a long way for them to roll there. Anyway, is there not a continental divide in this country? If anywhere, they should roll to the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet somewhere in the South Pacific, is this huge morass of materials that will not biodegrade, principally plastic, some aluminum cans, and clearly, hundreds of my “Uniball” pens. In blue!

And I want them back, so that I can continue to write my appalling signature with them.

Ronald P. Stewart
Headmaster
York Prep