What my handwriting looks like today.

The influences that linger

Like most children, my handwriting was atrocious. I learned how to write cursive in grade school, sometime between grades 1 and 3, and while it was legible, it would never be able to compete with my mother’s beautiful loops and clear letters.

That all changed when I was in 7th grade, due to the influence of a particular math teacher named Clay Reeves. In those dark days of the late 1970s, teachers in small town Texas still used spirit duplicator machines. As Wikipedia describes it:

The first sheet could be typed, drawn, or written upon. The second sheet was coated with a layer of wax that had been impregnated with one of a variety of colorants. The pressure of writing or typing on the first sheet transferred the colored wax from the second sheet to the shiny/coated back side of the first sheet, producing a mirror image. This produced the same result of a sheet of carbon paper put in backwards. The two sheets were then separated, and the first sheet was fastened onto the drum of the machine, with the back side facing out, acting as a printing plate. (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_duplicator)

The common color used was purple or mauve, and if the teacher hadn’t had much time between running the duplicates and handing them out, the sheets could often retain a bit of the alcohol smell used in the duplicating process.

Clay prepared all his worksheets and tests using this machine. He would often be at his desk preparing a new one on the two-ply wax, creating what seemed to me to be works of art. His handwriting was printed, not cursive, but still very expressive and decorative. Later that year, he announced that he was auditioning students for a school play which he was writing himself. The audition script was in that same beautiful handwriting, this time in sentences and stage directions. I ended up landing the lead part, requiring me to read and re-read the script, memorizing hundreds of lines, and in the process, giving even more of a focus on that looping printing.

Before the school year was up, I had decided to change my handwriting. I took that script and began to model my letters after Clay’s. I wrote and re-wrote sections, sometimes actually tracing letters by placing a blank piece of paper over his original. By the time 9th grade came around, my handwriting had changed completely.

A sample of my handwriting from 9th grade, looking very much like Clay’s.

In the last decades, as can be seen from the two samples, my style has diverged from his, just as my life has taken me far afield from that Texas town, pop. 5,000. But the influence remains, both on my handwriting, and my life.

For it wasn’t only that print that changed me, although for me it is a constant reminder of his influence on my life. His influence extended into my ambitions as a child and adult. For it was also the 7th grade and 8th grade plays that Clay wrote and organized and played guitar accompaniment, the first time I had seen and been part of an original creative process, and it gave me a lifelong appetite for expressing myself creatively (I even wrote him in as a minor character in my first novel). Clay was also the first adult I knew who admitted to reading comic books—he had a stack of late 1960s and early 1970s Marvel comics at the top of his cabinet at school that he let me borrow and read.

Just recently, Clay was honored by the school board of my hometown for 50 years of teaching. In the last decades, teachers and teaching have become increasingly derided by politicians and private entrepreneurs, who look at test scores and numbers and believe they can do better, but never actually talk to those in the trenches to find out the real issues. Clay is a perfect example of what is needed in education: dedicated, passionate people who share their love for not only the subject they teach, but for creativity, exploration, and inspiration.

I owe him much much more than this simple encomium, but giving credit is overdue and there’s no better time than now. Thanks, Clay, for the math and everything else!

Glen Engel-Cox is the author of a novel, Darwin’s Daughter, and a non-fiction collection on reading, First Impressions.