Notes from a Leftie

Karen Radford Treanor 


Copyright 2015  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of President Obama signing bill.

Tax season is approaching Downunder, which means that I have been fossicking about in my computer desktop and file cabinets in search of things I should have filed months ago.  Why don't I ever learn to be more organized?

In my searches, I ran across this essay which I wrote a few years back.  It got lost along with so much else.  Re-reading, I think you might find it amusing.

In 2009, I got more of a kick watching the new American President sign his first official document than many people. It wasn’t for any of the reasons that pleased others--first black president; one of the youngest presidents; Democrat; a well-travelled man; a new broom: all those things are no doubt worthy reasons to be pleased—no, it was the way he grabbed the pen in his left hand. A southpaw, a molly-duker, a leftie: at last, we dextrally–challenged people of the world had a poster child!

(Strangely, five out of the last seven American presidents have been left-handed. George W Bush wasn’t a lefty—no surprise there! What are the odds against having so many lefthanders in the Oval Office? Tattersall’s could no doubt tell me.)  

It’s unfortunate that President Obama is one of those lefties who looks as if he’d got his paw caught in a laundry mangle. That comes from his not having had a parent who realised that the only reason lefties write in their peculiar fashion is because teachers insist on their placing the paper diagonally on the desk in the same direction as right-handed people do, top left to bottom right. This placement means that the only way a lefthander can write on the paper is with that peculiar crabbed over-the-top-and-down style.

Thanks to my mother’s intervention, I was allowed to put my paper on the desk at the opposite angle to my right-handed classmates. I could write just as fluidly as the best of them, and didn’t drag my sleeves over my own work. Penmanship was still taught when I was in school, and I won a few certificates in my time, proving that lefties can reach the same dizzy calligraphic heights as anyone else.

Because I don’t write in the usual crabbed lefty manner, it has sometimes taken years for right-handed acquaintances to notice I am not one of them. One of my cousins only last month exclaimed “You’re left-handed!” in the tone of one suddenly discovering I was on probation for arson.

Mother wasn’t happy about my being left-handed. She regarded it as a character flaw, and said often “I don’t know where you got that, nobody in my family is left-handed.” She was doubly upset when my only son turned out to be a lefty. Apparently I should have tried harder not to pass on the sinister gene. I did my best, putting his cereal spoon upright in the centre of mashed potato or extra-stiff porridge so as not to influence his choice of hand.

It isn’t easy being left-handed. At school, I was put at the back of the last row, because ‘people can cheat from your papers by looking over your shoulder.’ I wasn’t sure whether to be proud of the fact that I had papers worth cheating from, or feel guilty for being an occasion of sin for my classmates. The Latin for left, sinister, has blotched the escutcheons of all lefties—you have only to look into heraldry to find the bar sinister, the diagonal line indicating bastardry in one’s ancestors.

And for non-crabbed-lefties, life is even harder. I once took a summer school course in calligraphy and had the devil’s own time of it, as the instructor was very clear in his instructions: “You lefthanders should hold your paper upside down and work from top to bottom, then turn the paper around the right way.” He also supplied peculiar offset pen nibs to the lefties. As I was not a bent-paw lefty, the whole convoluted process made my attempts at calligraphy pretty much of a dog’s breakfast. I later got a book from the library, bought a standard calligraphy pen, and taught myself a reasonable facsimile of Carolingian miniscule.

Later in life I worked in southern Africa, in the Kingdom of Swaziland. The right hand-left hand dichotomy is far more noticeable and important there than in most western countries. Using the left hand was an occasion of grievous rudeness. The first phrase I asked our language tutor to teach me was ‘please pardon my left hand’, in case I slipped and forgot to give or accept anything with the right hand. I moved my bracelets from my right to my left wrist, so that the jingling would call to my attention that the left forelimb was up to something.

There was a formal procedure for receiving something from another person which I mastered early on: one holds the right forearm with the left hand; thus preventing any unfortunate slips. It was a sort of archaic gesture mainly used by old ladies when receiving gifts, but I made sure to adopt it, and scored a few brownie points for my manners. It took years to forget the procedure after I left the kingdom; three decades on, I still do it occasionally.

It is to be hoped that having an American President who is left-handed might go some ways towards removing the stain from us all. Meanwhile, parents and teachers of lefties: do them a favour and teach them to place their paper at the opposite angle on the desk, top right to bottom left. The resulting penmanship will be legible, many shirtsleeves will be saved a smudging, and the mark of Cain won’t be quite so visible to a censorious world.

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