I was born left-handed. I reached for food left-handed. I buttoned my shirts left-handed, and I zipped my zippers left-handed. And when I was six, I began to print left-handed.
The Latin word for “left” is “sinister.”
Mrs. Quam was my teacher in first grade, in elementary school in rural Minnesota. My desk in Mrs. Quam’s classroom was made of wood and iron and was bolted to the floor. Winnie Thompson, who had two pigtails, sat behind me and kicked my seat all the time. The bench in front, hinged to mine, belonged to Carl Jurgenson, who always wore corduroy pants that smelled a little like urine. Carl needed a bath; there were patches of grime on his neck that could not be covered by his blond hair.
Winnie and Carl were right-handers.
At first we all practiced printing together. The rough paper we used for practice sheets was light beige and had green horizontal lines about every inch or so. I would turn around and watch Winnie, who made smooth rows of O’s and U’s that were even and plump. Winnie also made I’s and L’s that stood straight and tall like soldiers. Winnie’s letters stayed inside the green lines on the practice sheets.
I saw what Carl was doing on his practice sheets at his desk because Carl sat sideways. When Carl printed on his practice sheets, his tongue snuck out of the corner of his mouth, and his fingers turned white and red on the pencil as he pressed heavy, black letters onto the practice sheet. But Carl never smeared the practice sheet during printing like I did because Carl’s right hand was always ahead of and not behind the point of his pencil. My left hand always trailed my letters, so my practice sheets were always smudged.
On Sundays I was taught how to print Hebrew with Claire Dubinsky, who was younger than I, and with Arthur Hirsch, who was a year older. Our three families were the only Jews in that rural Minnesota town where I lived. I learned to print in Hebrew on Sundays just as I learned to print English in school on weekdays, copying the letters from large cards my father brought from Minneapolis.
Each Sunday Claire, Arthur, and I sat together either at a wooden card table with folding legs or around one of the chrome and Formica tables in our families’ kitchens. Sitting there together with Claire and Arthur, I printed Hebrew in block letters just as I printed English in public school, clutching my lead pencil in my left hand, pushing the pencil up and down on green lined paper, shaping those strange letters.
On Sundays I printed from the right and not the left because Hebrew is scribed the opposite of English. My left hand was an advantage in printing Hebrew. My hand stayed in front of and not behind the Hebrew letters as I printed on the green lines. I didn’t smear my Hebrew letters on my Sunday practice sheets. My Hebrew practice sheets were clean and not smudged. This was different than printing on weekdays, different than printing in school.
In public school my teacher, Mrs. Quam, often put her arm on my shoulder while I worked. Mrs. Quam smelled like the inside of my grandmother’s dresser, lilac sweet and old, when she put her arm over mine.
One fall day Mrs. Quam put her arm around my shoulders with that sweet old scent and told me that I was going to learn to print like Winnie and Carl, with my right hand, so that there would be no more smudges. Mrs. Quam smiled when she told me. “Like everybody else” and “no smudges.” Right-handed. It sounded good to me.
The Latin word for “right” is “dexter.”
Ms. Quam’s desk was up by the blackboard and in front of the American flag. Next to the teacher’s desk there was a much smaller, flat, Formica table with one chair tucked underneath. Many times Mrs. Quam led Russell Bean, who could never keep quiet, up to the front table next to the teacher’s desk because that way, Mrs. Quam could put her hand on Russell’s shoulder while she stood by the blackboard, and most of the time that seemed to calm him down.
So I followed Mrs. Quam and that nice old lilac scent to the front table where she told me I would sit during printing, where Russell Bean sat when he was noisy, not at my desk between Carl and Winnie. Mrs. Quam gave me a special book whose pages had curves and letters for me to copy while I sat alone up there by her desk.
Mrs. Quam led the rest of the class drawing letters from white charts leaning on the chalkboard. I copied my curves and letters out of the special book Mrs. Quam gave to me. Not with the rest of the class.
Using my right hand, I tried to print the special curves and letters between the green lines on the practice sheets but it was no use. They would start there all right, but then my pencil would bobble up and down, and the curves and letters sank below the green lines like drowning boys sinking below the surface of a green lake. One curve or letter below the green line and I would lose another whole row. One bobble below the line, another drowning boy, and the whole row was shot. Only one mistake and I had ruined a whole line.
When I worked at the front table, Mrs. Quam would lean over me, just the way she would lean over Russell Bean when he sat at the front table.
“Now that’s a good line,” Mrs. Quam would say, looking at my curves and letters. “That’s improvement, isn’t it?” she would say, as if she couldn’t see the drowning boys sinking below the green lines.
Friday was award day, the day Mrs. Quam stuck a gold star on the best practice sheets, the ones with even rows of straight lines and perfect, round circles inside the green lines. She held up those practice sheets with a gold sticker on them for all of us to see. The gold star, there for the class to see, for moms and dads to see. Mrs. Quam stuck the gold stars on the practice sheets next to the name of the person who made those perfect rows. Then Mrs. Quam pinned the practice sheets with gold stars to the cork bulletin board next to the blackboard. Winnie always got gold stars. So did Carl.
Mrs. Quam also stuck brown, oak leaf stickers on the so-so practice sheets. These were good too, Mrs. Quam said; only a little improvement and they would be gold star practice sheets. Mrs. Quam gave back the practice sheets with the oak leaf stickers.
After turning back the oak leaf-stickered practice sheets and after pinning the gold leaf-stickered practice sheets to the bulletin board, Mrs. Quam still had my practice sheets. Mrs. Quam announced that I had been working to change my printing hand from my left hand to my right hand and that this was very, very hard. Holding my practice sheet up with both hands and moving it so that everyone could see my mashed curves and crooked letters sinking below the green lines, Mrs. Quam said, “Look at the improvement. There is real improvement here, Michael. We can all see the improvement, can’t we?”
Winnie Thompson started to laugh and then put her hand in front of her mouth. Mrs. Quam went right on:
“Put your hand up if you think Michael should get an oak leaf sticker for improvement. I do,” she said, putting up her left hand.
I looked around; my seat at the front table was far away from the rows of desks. Everyone but me put up their hand, and Mrs. Quam stuck an oak leaf sticker next to my drowning boys.
My week-two practice sheets looked about the same as those from week one; so did my practice sheets in week three. In week ten my right-handed lines and curves still sunk below the green lines on the paper and Mrs. Quam gave up. My right hand simply was not dexterous. I didn’t have to sit at the front table, Russell Bean’s table, by the teacher’s desk anymore; Mrs. Quam let me stay at my seat between Carl and Winnie, and I was allowed again to use my left hand during printing practice.
* * *
The next year, in second grade, we were learning writing from Mrs. Bringleson, the second grade teacher. Like everyone else, I wrote letters with slow, slanted curves, learning to sweep the letters onto the pages. It was like sweeping with a broom, like waving away a fly, using the wrist to slant and bend the letters, no more straight-up-and-down strokes.
Mrs. Bringleson let me write with my left hand, although my hand always passed over my pencil marks trailing behind and smudging the letters. But still I was writing at my seat with my class, all of us second graders writing at once, all of us copying off the same board charts at the same time, all of us writing and copying together seated in our desk rows, concentrating together, all of us sweeping the letters onto the practice sheets, examining our letters for their angles, design, and evenness, all together.
My class was writing together the day when Mrs. Bringleson began to ask each second grader what church their families belonged to, asking up and down each row of desks, polling and then writing the answers my classmates gave. Mrs. Bringleson started in the row of desks closest to the window asking the names of our churches. My row was by the blackboard, the last row Mrs. Bringleson would get to.
Carl said, “Martin Luther,” and kept writing.
Winnie said, “Epiphany,” and kept writing.
My left hand tightened on my pencil. I stopped sweeping, brushing, and examining my curves and letters on my practice sheets. I didn’t know why Mrs. Bringleson was asking but I had no church.
While I waited for Mrs. Bringleson to get down the row to me, I considered that I might lie. I thought about claiming to be a Lutheran. Our next-door neighbors were Lutherans, and they seemed to be nice enough. I wasn’t sure about the name of their church. I had been told that I had been born at Saint Olaf’s Hospital, and that name stuck in my mind. Perhaps I’d simply make up the name of my church when the time came and state it to be Saint Olaf’s.
Ms. Bringleson never asked me what church I went to. She must have known there was no synagogue in our part of the Minnesota countryside.
It didn’t matter, though, that she didn’t ask me. Not asking was the same as if the question What Church? was printed on a piece of paper with an oak leaf sticker on it and pinned to my shirt, its curves and letters sinking below the green lines like drowning boys. It was as if my seat had a sign printed on it saying No Church. I was as alone as when I sat at Russell Bean’s table, feeling as separate in not being asked, feeling as if Ms. Bringleson had asked me and that I had answered. I was different again.