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Third grade: Is there a more cursive fate?

The summer of a thousand Band-Aids is just about over, and the little guy is off to the third grade, finally. The first day of school comes just as his mother is contemplating hurling herself from the roof. Coincidence? Probably not.

Our little Huck. Spent the summer working on his impressions and burping the alphabet. One week, he took up tap-dancing.

So now he’s off to the third grade — elbows like broom handles, scrubbed as if being sold. I think his mother might’ve taken him to one of those car detailers to have him steam cleaned. He smells vaguely of waffles and the sort of scented little trees that dangle from rear-view mirrors.

Naturally, the little guy is very excited about the first day of third grade. It’s a milestone, in the sense that he gets to learn cursive, which is a lot like the study of Latin, a musty discipline with sketchy applications to the world of today.

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In fact, when was the last time you got a nice handwritten note? Only grandmas send those anymore. My advice: Start collecting them. Because pretty soon, handwritten notes will be about as common as Confederate currency.

Anyway, that’s what the little guy is looking forward to in the third grade. To this day, like a century ago, the learning of cursive writing is considered a very big deal.

“Dad, do you remember third grade?”

“No.”

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“Was it hard?” he asks.

All I remember of third grade is Mrs. Dunkleberry, a woman of indeterminate age, and the first fascist I’d ever met.

Like many teachers, Mrs. Dunkleberry had long ago grown tired of children, but — since the German Officer Corps wasn’t hiring at the time — continued to shape young hearts and minds for another 60 to 80 years.

Don’t get me wrong; the stern and unsmiling Mrs. Dunkleberry was effective. You sat at your desk just so. You held your pencil this way, not that. She was a public-school teacher with all the traits nuns are famous for, but with an added dose of malice.

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In short, Mrs. Dunkleberry scared the bejesus out of everyone.

Mrs. Dunkleberry practiced “tough love” before the term had been coined, and I’m not even sure there was a lot of love in her love. But there was toughness, and a little wisp of cruelty. She put the old in old school.

In the winter term, just as she was about to tame us, an angel showed up in the form of a student teacher. This woman was ancient too, probably 21 or 22, and to me looked a lot like Jayne Mansfield. Furnace-like, she would show up in the mornings in a button-down sweater and drive the winter right out of the chilly brick walls.

This is just what you needed in the second half of the year, for Chicago winters are famous for their polar breezes. By February, you usually developed icicles inside your sinuses that would not thaw until some time in June.

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By winter term, everyone was a mouth breather.

Into this world stepped the student teacher, who wore heels even in the snow. In her first week, several of the boys proposed to her. So did a couple of the dads. There was a brief move to name the school in her honor.

This did nothing to lighten the mood of crotchety Mrs. Dunkleberry, who saw this beautiful and personable student teacher as a threat to her perfect kingdom. It was the ‘60s, and the world was in transition. Music was changing. Movies were changing. Teenagers were demanding to be heard.

Mrs. Dunkleberry considered herself America’s last hope against such ridiculousness — against a world run amok. She taught us cursive writing as if the republic itself were at stake.

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“You! Sit up straight!” she’d bark.

“Is that how you hold a pencil?” she’d snarl.

When we misbehaved, she’s make us put our heads on our desks and be absolutely quiet.

“I hear BREATHING!” she’d scream, so we cut that out promptly. Certain classmates, always the same ones, would pass out and slide from their chairs. Clumuuuump.

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One kid, Mark Johnson, used to chew the thick third-grade pencils like stalks of celery. In Miss Dunkleberry’s eyes, this would not do. He might as well have been gnawing at her leg.

Once, to prove a point, she stood over him and ordered him to eat the pencil right in front of everybody. This, he gladly did, to the delight of his classmates. Evidently, Mark Johnson had watched a lot of Sid Caesar. For a third-grader, he had a very sophisticated sense of mayhem.

There was a lot of squealing that day, as Mrs. Dunkleberry grabbed little Mark Johnson by the ear and paraded him around the class as an example of what happens to 8-year-old boys who mock her by eating their pencils.

Today, she would be in prison. Back then, that was considered good teaching. Sure enough, Mark Johnson soon quit eating his pencils, and the effectiveness of the Dunkleberry Method won out once more.

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The legend lives on.

These days, I’m not sure how they teach cursive writing. The teachers are probably very positive and encouraging.

I’m sure that works too.

Good luck, kid. Sit up straight.

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chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes


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