Last year, I had an opportunity to write about my experience with sensory processing disorder. It was an in-depth piece with a broad overview of the symptoms and characteristics that I encountered, as well as areas where I continue to struggle. This is the raw, unedited version of how I began that piece, a snapshot of my classroom experience with learning to write in cursive.
I stared at the dry erase board. On this particular day in third grade, my teacher formed a string of cursive letters. One letter C attached to another, as if to form an odd wave in the ocean.
I saw how she held the marker in her right hand, and the way she deliberately formed each letter. The marker never left the board in between letters; it held course and continued forward.
In my left hand, I held a pencil with a school-issued grip meant to teach finger placement. But it was meant for right-handers. Mine was turned upside down. It felt awkward.
My fingers were unsure as I gripped the pencil, holding it tighter to make sure I wasn’t going to drop it.
My pencil moved, somewhat formed the top curve of a C. Retracing that same path proved tricky, though. Mine didn’t match up. But I kept going toward the bottom of the line and then began the next letter.
It was a slow process, not swift movements like my teacher’s.
And after linking two letters together, I pressed too hard and my paper ripped.
I was overcome with a sense of failure. I’m never going to get this right.
Pushing the paper to the side so I could start again in a clean area, I looked once more at my teacher’s example.
Ok, you form a curve for the top of the C, retrace that path and then curve up for the next one.
The pencil still felt awkward in my hand. It wasn’t meant for me. I could never shake that feeling.
I tried again on the paper. It seemed so easy for everyone else, but my fingers wouldn’t cooperate.
The more I tried, the more frustrated I became. Soon the tears came.
And when the teacher came to my side, trying to find out what was wrong, I couldn’t explain. She tried to show me one-on-one, guiding my hand across the page. But it was too late.
The tears were falling. Then that stupid lump in my throat appeared, making it difficult to even form words.
What words I tried to express became lost in a hyperventilating, can’t-catch-your-breath crying spell.
She patiently told me to go to the bathroom to wipe my face and calm down.
Early on when learning to write and draw, I was switching back and forth between my right and left hands. Eventually I chose and stuck with writing with my left hand. I don’t know how that was decided.
The sensory issues I hoped the above scenario illustrated are:
- Tactile discomfort with the finger grip
- Afraid of dropping the pencil so I held on tighter
- Not being able to regulate pencil pressure, so I pressed harder, resulting in paper ripping (other scenarios will include the pencil tip breaking off)
- Not being able to match up the line movements
- The brain, eyes and fingers having trouble coordinating and relaying appropriate messages so I could plan and carry out writing movements
- Becoming easily frustrated
I knew what was expected of me, . I knew what my teacher wanted me to do, and I understood the steps. But my body wouldn’t cooperate.
If we had finger grips for left-handers maybe it would have been different. But these had indentations for where your fingers should go, and turning them upside down so they somewhat correlated for a left-hander just didn’t help me.
Yet, there was another left-hander in our class. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t having as much trouble as me.
These daily writing lessons routinely ended with me being sent to the bathroom to calm down. I was finally getting more comfortable with printing; being thrown into cursive lessons was a lot to handle.
Since these lessons were daily exercises, having a way of handling the anxiety would have helped. Integrating a sensory activity before cursive might have helped me put money in my “emotional/sensory bank” so that I was in a position to focus better at the lesson. (See my post about the sensory diet for more information.) Maybe engaging in heavy work would have helped jumpstart my brain’s responses and improved the communication from eyes to brain to arm and fingers.
Of course talking to my parents about these problems might have generated other ideas, too. I would imagine my teacher would have said something about the specific reaction I had with handwriting lessons. I actually still have my 3rd grade report card, and there was no mention of crying spells during class. So, that seems odd to me.
I didn’t know there was a reason I was having so much trouble. I just thought it had to do with effort and focus. So that’s my explanation for not sharing more with my parents. No kid really wants to highlight all the ways she’s struggling in school.
The good news is that eventually I did learn how to write in cursive, not just being able to read what others wrote out. It just took a bit longer to get the hang of it.