“B B B B B…”
I’d really like to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on this xylophone. I can always play the song in the key of C, but the song starts on C… B… A… G. The song starts on a G and the lowest note on the xylophone is a C, so I would have to start the song A… B… C… D… E… F… G… eight notes above where the G usually lies. But skipping around like that is too tricky and it wouldn’t sound quite right. The only solution is to play the song starting on the lowest note on the xylophone, C, which would make the song in the key of C… D… E… F. But the key of F has a B-flat in it. And this xylophone—this slobbered-all-over, rainbow-colored, banged-up-plastic, mallet-attached-on-a-string staple of any kindergarten classroom—does not. Just my luck.
“F F F F F…”
“This is your child’s handwriting homework booklet. We will be following a program called ‘Handwriting Without Tears’ in class and the children will be asked to complete a page at home that corresponds to the work we cover in class.” Sincerely, The Kindergarten Teachers.
Page after page of “My Alphabet Book” contains just that—line upon line replete with meticulous strings of letters, each one expertly chosen in a specific sequence like a well-thought-out 10-course meal. ‘L’, ‘F’, and ‘E’ were learned first, for example, because “they all start at the top and are easier to recognize.” At least according to The Kindergarten Teachers.
“L L L L L…”
Each letter is crafted in spidery, arthritic strokes that must have taken the author seconds each to draw. Beneath the wavering, penciled-in tracings of the more “difficult” letters, it is not uncommon to see the page streaked with pink-and-gray erasures where the upstroke of an ‘N’ had wandered too far to the right or one ‘W’ had thoughtlessly conjoined with another. For the direst transgressions—an ‘F’ that had failed to span completely the width of the paper’s dotted guidelines, just to name one—a dictatorial red pen smothers the pencil with ‘X’s that the teacher seems to have plagiarized from the ‘X’ page found only later in the book.
“D D D D D…”
The more exemplary pages—ones in which the ‘O’s go all the way around and the ‘U’s not quite so—have red stamps instead. “You’re a STAR!” shouts a particularly enthusiastic anthropomorphic star. “Good Job!” reads an apple with a face mysteriously similar to that of the star. “Good Writing,” however, appears most often.
“My Alphabet Book” is not “Good Writing.” It’s not “writing,” even. Each letter is written by a five-year-old who knows no better than to follow a well-worn template. Each letter is a literal carbon copy of the letter directly preceding it, and the letter before that one is printed as a template in the book. There is absolutely nothing in this book that gives even the faintest nod in the direction of how the “writer” is feeling that day, or whether or not he enjoyed his lunch, or how much he loves (or hates) practicing his handwriting.
Appropriately, the cover of “My Alphabet Book” contains a printed image of a scattered array of random letters vomited from between the front and back cover of a book.
“M M M M M…”
Howard E. Gardner ’65, cognitive psychologist and professor at the Graduate School of Education, agrees. “In kindergarten, unless you’re very precocious, you’re not going to be creating sonnets,” Gardner says as he flips through “My Alphabet Book.” “You understand that when people make marks on a page, the point is to either create meaning that you have or create meaning that you want to convey to somebody else.”
The only vestige of the creative mind that birthed “My Alphabet Book” into the world, no more frustrating and mysterious than a bunch of cave drawings, is a worthless set of virtual hieroglyphs. Indeed, Gardner says that “reading and writing are new human inventions, and it could easily be the case that 5,000 years ago, it didn’t exist. People made drawings, but it’s different from writing.”
I can’t help but fear that what I write today—this article included—will share its fate with “My Alphabet Book.” Perhaps someday some chrome-clad critic will squint her beady eyes over my articles and find them to be complete gibberish. Perhaps someday someone will write a new article about this one, questioning its inclusion under the term “writing” almost as much as my editors do at present. But unlike the lucky author of “My Alphabet Book,” I won’t be able to fall back on my being five years young as an excuse.
“Your own understanding is guiding what you’re doing from some kind of a model,” says Gardner, pointing at the templates provided on the page. “You do your best to write it in such a way that at least you can decode it. But optimally, it shouldn’t be just you.”
I will admit that there is one element of “My Alphabet Book” that contains some morsel of meaning. On the cover reads the author’s name written in clean, quick, deliberate snaps of a pencil.
What astonishes me is how smooth and practiced the letters in the name look compared to the rest of the letters in my alphabet book. How strange, that letters drawn individually with the sole purpose of perfecting and refining them pale in quality to those the author knew to be part of his name. It is only in a song, after all, that ‘G’, ‘C’ and ‘F’ make sense. It is only as a name that ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ are fully functional.
“by BeNJAMiN SENZER”
It is only in my name that the letters are truly “written.” But I guess I knew that fifteen years ago, too:
“This year in school, I would like to learn: How TO WRiTE.”