On Miss Peach and Perfect Penmanship: Memory Glinting in the Glass


I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever, reaching above and beyond, grasping after what someone less ambitious might ignore.

Sometimes it’s a blessing.

Other times, a curse.

In either case, a duty to be dealt with.  Winning was what mattered, after all. (Or so I’ve sometimes thought.)

This striving harder, diving deeper, never settling for second best was behavior well-established by the time I trudged, pixie-headed, into first grade—yellow rubber boots over navy Lady Janes—bundled in a nubby winter coat Kimmy’d  purchased at Kaufman’s the fall before.  (“Kimmy” was what we called my paternal grandmother.)

I was dressed for success, dressed to endure.

My teacher was Miss Peach.  Nearing retirement age, she was petite but pudgy, doughy as unbaked biscuits—short gray curls set perfectly in place.  Miss Peach was as jovial as she was full of fat and excess flesh.  She enforced few rules, so that we first graders were, as a whole, more foot lose and fancy free than straight-laced, prim and proper.

I remember loving the “Sally, Dick, and Jane” books—a perfect world I could fall into during reading groups, while the rest of the class completed “seat work” outlined on a black board.  The world Dick and Jane inhabited felt cozy and carefree—one where spilt milk and muddy feet were readily forgiven, where a kitten named Puff fluffed stories into fun.  I didn’t read well aloud, but well enough to mostly maintain my place in the top reading group and develop a love of narrative, it neatness—the predictability of pages turned, the order found in books.

However, way worse than my oral reading remained my penmanship, which was, in fact, pathetic at best.  It seemed the notion of neatness and legibility in this arena meant little if anything to me, so much so I wonder now if anyone even bothered to explain that the goal of printing was communication—that what one wrote others were meant to read and comprehend.

That is until Miss Peach held a contest of sorts.

One day in the dead of winter, Pittsburgh piled high with dirty snow, streets full of freezing slush, we arrived at our corner classroom to find Miss Peach perched atop a wooden chair in front of the black board, carefully printing a paragraph-long letter to the principal.

When we had put away our coats and hats, mittens and scarves, when we finally sat, hands folded in nearly neat rows, Miss Peach announced the competition scheduled to play out that day, a drama in our classroom smelling of wet wool and pencil shavings.  For seat work that morning, we were supposed to practice our penmanship, copying the letter looming on the board.  Whoever, reproduced it with the most perfect printing would get to carry their letter across the hall and deliver it in-person to the principal.

For me, suddenly, practice required perfection, and I decided I would win.  If it were merely a matter of copying exactly what was on the board, I determined I could do it well enough, that there was no reason not to take the trophy trip across the hall—perfect printing for the principal.

So, all that morning, I muddled at my desk, thick blue pencil clutched in cramping fingers.  I copied, erased, copied and erased some more, until finally the letters marched a military precision—parading print across the page.

Then that afternoon, following a lunch of cheese sandwich on white bread, Miss Peach, wearing an emerald polyester dress, announced what I’d expected all along—

Indeed, my letter was the best.  Indeed, I had won the printing prize.

In that moment and the moments after as I imagined dancing across the hall, the notion of writing, even in its most rudimentary form, became a goal of mine.  I fell in love with the printed word, and by implication fell in love with writing itself—the notion of imitating what I saw—whether what was on a black board or unfolding all around me.

That cold afternoon as frost formed on outside surfaces, as it crept across our classroom windows, I understood the correlation between cause and effect, the literary implications of effort and reward—a tundra of story left glinting in the glass.

Note:  If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I am writing a memoir and blogging about growing up in an organized crime family.  (This post, though not about the mafia specifically, is part of that series.)  To read one of my mafia-related memoir posts,”Kids Make the Best Bookies,” click here.  If you are interested in reading any of my protected posts, please email me at kownroom@yahoo.com  or let me know in the comments below, and I will gladly share the password with you.

(Note:  We will update Sara’s Photo-a-Day Project in a  special post a couple of weeks from now.  We are still working out the details.)

58 thoughts on “On Miss Peach and Perfect Penmanship: Memory Glinting in the Glass

  1. I was very good at copy book writing, as it was called in my day. I was very neat and loved it. We had Dick and Jane, but our cat was called Fluff and the dog was Nip (I think, it was a very long time ago) My sister was the one who had to come top of the class in everything, and she usually did. I was happy to up in the top few, but I wasn’t prepared to do extra work to take me to the top. I guess I cruised through school without a lot of effort. I have never really known what I wanted to do, I have just winged it.

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  2. Beautiful post, Kathy! I can relate to your love of reading, writing, and WINNING. 😉 Penmanship is something I’ve always prided myself on. I’ve gotten lazier and sloppier as the years have gone on (and as I’ve come to rely more and more on the keyboard), but there will always be a special place in my heart for perfect penmanship. Glorious writing, Kathy! 🙂

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    • So pleased to hear you enjoyed this post, Dana. I think I’ve learned to be less concerned about neat penmanship since computers have become so common. But I come from a generation for which they were not the norm. In some ways, I miss those days. Thanks for reading, my friend.

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  3. HI Kathryn, this brought back so many memories, things long forgotten, half hidden. I think we grew up in the same generation, or close. I learned to read with Dick and Jane and your Miss Peach was identical, in all that you described, to our Miss Lawson.

    I’m new to your blog, introduced by the other wonderful Kathy, and drawn by your thoughts on telling our stories and the power in this process. Very much looking forward to reading more.

    Wishing you a wonderful week!

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    • Great to hear from you, Colleen! But, yes, it sounds like we are from the same generation. Gosh, I loved those Dick and Jane books. I just so loved school when I was a kid–period–almost everything about it.

      I’m so happy to have you stop by. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. I look forward to getting to know you! Welcome!!!!!!!!!!!

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  4. It’s amazing how you can so vividly recall these detailed memories from your youth. I looked like a cherub but was a rather subversive little monster that teachers considered the spawn of Lucifer … Or maybe that was high school; I’ve blocked most of this stuff out of what’s left of my mind. Miss Peach was probably barely 50, but back then it seemed that everyone over 40 looked like a grandmother. Still, fun post about your dear teacher’s clever use of child psychology. In today’s world, some irate parent would probably try to have her canned for showing favoritism.

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    • Okay, let me confess here. This is a “conflated” memory. I think that’s the word. I clearly recall the letter, the contest, the prize. However, I’m not sure it was winter when it happened. I just decided the writing would be better if this were anchored in a season. Hope that’s not cheating. Also, I’m not sure Miiss Peach was wearing the green dress that day. I just remember her wearing a VERY GREEN–as in emerald–dress–at some point. In my mind, she is wearing that dress everytime I think of her.

      My memory is not this good, I promise. However, I read a bit about creative nonfiction and memoir writing over the weekend, and clearly this is what’s expected–that one fills in the forgotten details for the sake of narrative interest–as long as the experience itself was real.

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  5. Ha! My family has a tradition of extremely neat penmanship, something we inherited from my mother (with perhaps the exception of Fatu, who simply didn’t care) and I think it stemmed from the desire to please our teachers, to be singled out for praise. How cool that you rose to the challenge and won that prize!
    A beautifully written recollection Kathy….I loved the way you described your affinity for the Sally Dick and Jane books. I used to love reading out loud in class too, and took pride in my narrative skills and intonation 🙂

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    • Somehow I wonder how notions of neat penmanship differ between the US and Pakistan. I would love to know more about that–what school was like for you as a child.

      And yes, I always craved the praise of my teachers!

      Thanks for reading, my friend!

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  6. Perhaps I should hire you to teach penmanship to my kids. Their writing is AWFUL! Alas, I am not raising writers. *sniffle*

    Great post! My fave phrase: That cold afternoon as frost formed on outside surfaces, as it crept across our classroom windows, I understood the correlation between cause and effect, the literary implications of effort and reward—a tundra of story left glinting in the glass. There’s poetry in there!

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    • I’m afraid my penmanship has not remained stellar, so your boys are out of luck. So sorry!

      So glad this spoke to you and you enjoyed that final image. As I said in another comment, I honestly don’t recall that this event happened in winter. But from what I read about creative nonfiction, it’s okay to add detail we’ve forgotten for the sake of narrative interest, as long as the event itself actually happened.

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    • Isn’t it fun what will capture the imagination of a child? And I don’t know where the ambition came from. Maybe it had something to do with being a first-born child. I don’t know. Thanks for reading, Sandy!

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  7. After reading “petite but pudgy, doughy as unbaked biscuits” I was completely transported to your classroom; amazing what just a little bit of healthy competition can brew up isn’t it?

    I neglected my penmanship as a girl; my sisters both have penmanship that can literally make me cry, it’s so pretty. Not mine – it’s functional and meandering .. but I do make it a point to get off the computer and compile hand-written notes if only to get better at it.

    Wonderful post; super cute picture 🙂
    MJ

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  8. This is a perfectly lovely memory, and an excellent recollection of the very moment you fell in love with the written word. Plus, it’s got excellent alliteration, something I’m a sucker for (“perfect printing for the principal”). Question: how’s your penmanship today? Mine’s pretty awful — all I can say is, thank god for computers!

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    • Thanks, Deb. I’m delighted my writing moves you. And I think you’re right. Probably Miss Peach had NO idea how significant that experience was for me–not because I ultimately developed great penmanship–but because I realized that one can make the decision to work hard and then reap the reward.

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  9. I love your eloquent and descriptive writing. You have such a gift with words that I felt I was in the room with you. It’s fascinating to read about that pivotal moment in your life way back when you fell in love with the written word. I was homeschooled by a mom who was a teacher. I was an artist from the get go. I loved penmanship and I eventually became a calligrapher as well as an artist.

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    • How interesting. I had no idea you were an artist. That’s so fun. I love it when folks who are tech-savvy are also creative. Thanks for this comment and this great detail about you. Hope your week is going well.

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  10. Lovely story, Kathy. I used to get “C”s in penmanship. Now I wonder if they even teach that in schools. It almost seems as if the kids of today have no reason to need a pencil.

    BTW – I thought the trick was to stay out of the principal’s office, not go willingly. 🙂

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    • Ha, ha. At that age I suppose I had no idea that the principal’s office was a place associated with discipline.

      I have no idea if penmanship is taught these days. Well, actually, I do, as I’ve seen my nephew doing homework that involved worksheets and not a computer.

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  11. I was a penmanship perfectionist from the very beginning. I gripped a pencil so tight and pressed so hard that my hand would cramp up. I remember my dad telling me not to press so hard, but I believed that was the only way I could accomplish the pretty, perfect letters.

    I remember writing short stories in 5th grade. I loved those assignments and my efforts always resulted in high grades. My stories were one of the few things I did for which I can remember my mom expressing pride in me. That’s when I first realized I loved writing.

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    • How interesting that you were a penmanship perfectionist. I’m trying to remember if you are the oldest of your siblings, and wondering if over-achieving was something that affected other areas of your life, as well. You strike me as an real go-getter in general.

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  12. You’ve taken something so simple here and made it just beautiful. I actually saw your letters marching. They were in good form, I must say. I find it really interesting, and in some ways surprising, that you were a perfection seeker that young. I suppose I’ve imagined the child Kathy in a stereotypically “artsy” rather than exacting way. Another reminder of people’s wonderful complexity!

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    • Intersting. I think I probably started out more artsy but then felt forced by circumstances to live this other life of a perfectionist. I think of myself as “artsy” in kindergarten, but think that began to be stiffled by the time I reached second grade. Second grade was a huge change for me. I’ll write about that.

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  13. Such a delightful post! I feel as if I was there in the classroom with you, and cheering you on as you marched across the hall to deliver your perfectly printed letter. 🙂

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  14. It is interesting how and when we push ourselves in childhood, how we define ourselves. Thinking about this call to perfection, how it can bring out the best in us, and yet never allow us to relax, to let go. Remembering how I desired this perfectionism, too, to be a good girl, to be praised. Thinking about the values and detriments of this… Love you, Ms. Kathy.

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    • I generally think perfectionism is not a good thing. I think that it rarely serves us well. I suppose it helped in this situation because it taught me to pursue what I really wanted. That part was helpful. Not the perfectionist part.

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  15. And my comment about handwriting seems to have disappeared, too.
    😦
    (Wondering if all the other comments I made last night on WordPress registered! Read and wrote for almost two hours, catching up.)
    I love that you fell in love with the written word. And that it fell in love with you, choosing to use you as a channel.

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