Monday, April 17, 2006

Your other left...

I am left-handed. I am proud of being left-handed. It is something that makes me stand out from the crowd...literally. In elementary school we had a teacher whose idea of physical education was two activities: marching and square-dancing. Both of these activities are physical and social landmine fields for a lefty. Sister Mary Cletus (dubbed Sister "Nikita" Cletus after the rotund, homely dictator of the Evil Empire who was then in power) would summon us to the cafetorium/library which also functioned as our gym. There she would fire up the victrola, a monstrous gray record-player.

Tuesday was marching day. The John Philip Sousa hits just kept on coming and we formed our lines as Sister barked out commands. She usually lost me at "right-left" since I was always on the wrong foot. Things only got worse from there. As the commands continued I inevitably found myself on the other side of the room from my "squad", conspicuously alone and wondering if Sister would notice if I just non-chalantly sashayed back across the room to my rightful place. When the music stopped, things got ugly. After taking a few moments to sufficiently humiliate me, she would "position" me where I was supposed to be and we would proceed, only to face the same situation a few moments later. What was wrong with me? I wasn't a stupid person. I consistently got high grades in all of the other areas. I could wrestle a spelling bee to the ground and emerge victorious everytime. The times tables were a snap. Why couldn't I make my feet move in the right direction?

Fridays were even worse. That was Square Dance day. I would do everything I could think of to convince my mother that I had some life-draining illness and would be unable to go to school. She never bought it. So, off to the cafetorium/library I would trudge, bracing myself for another dose of humiliation. And it always came.

One of Sister's favorite square dances was something called "The Right Hand Star." She would position us in our places, start the music and do her best Caller's impersonation, complete with a "yee-ha" or two. After all, this was supposed to be fun. I'm sure it was for her. The rest of us were miserable, scared to death of screwing up and earning an ear cuff or verbal assault. I felt like a prisoner on death row. I knew the punishment was coming. It was just a matter of when. Sure enough, the inevitable call came.

"Right hands into the center and turn the wheel." That was the right hand star. Everyone else executed it perfectly. I, of course, did it wrong and ended up face to face with the person who was supposed to be behind me in the wheel. I had two choices. Stop the wheel by plowing into the person who was now in front of me or walk backwards and hope futilely that Sister would not notice that my LEFT hand was in the center. It never mattered. The end result was always the same. Another public humiliation.

In third grade, a new opportunity to feel stupid emerged. In honor of our new foray into the wonderful world of cursive writing using the then-popular Palmer method, we traded in our pencils for cartridge pens. These were marvelous inventions with sleek barrels and beautiful shiny points that hid a nasty secret: messy, uncontrollable, smearable blue ink that got all over everything. As a lefty, I soon learned that the only way I could avoid smearing the letters I had just written was to adopt a crab-like curl to my left hand which made my writing effectively illegible. This was all the Sisters of Mercy (who were anything but...) needed to drive my ego into the ground like a tent peg. There was no attempt made to understand the physics of the situation. Rather, Sister Mary Bernardo (the tormentor of that year) called my parents in and told them that unless I was "changed" to a right-handed writer, she would have no choice but to have me repeat third grade. For HANDWRITING????????? Yes, it seems that in the standards of the Albany Diocese, mastering cursive handwriting was as essential an educational component for the successful completion of third grade as spelling, math, and reading comprehension, all subjects for which I was earning straight A's!

My grandmother had been forced to learned to write using her right hand, despite her natural lefty tendencies. She also had a very severe stutter, something my mother was convinced was a direct result of the switch. She was not about to let me become the next Porky Pig of St. Joseph's school so she hatched her own plan. Unfortunately, it would cost me a carefree, no-responsibility summer. She employed a handwriting coach. He was a neighbor, a man who was a public school teacher and left-handed himself. I met with him twice a week to practice my concentric O's and rows of tightly packed I's and he gave me "homework" in between. It paid off. I was allowed to move on to fourth grade. I did so well that next year that Sister Mary Alma suggested to my parents that I skip fifth grade and move directly into sixth. My mother said no, doubtlessly afraid that I would be too young to handle the social nuances of being so much younger than my classmates and she was probably right.

But my left-handedness continued to define and affect me. My mother was a knitter and I desperately wanted to learn. She was right-handed and tried to teach me to knit the way she did. It was a disaster. My stitches were too tight, or twisted, or just not there. I couldn't visualize the process and finally, reluctantly, admitted to myself that, as a lefty, I wouldn't be able to knit.

Years later, when I got married, my husband Brendan wanted me to learn to knit so I could make him a wonderful wool sweater. For the next 25 years I held him off, claiming that my left-handedness rendered me unable to learn to knit. He would ask knitters he met, as well as yarn store owners if there was anyone who could teach me and the answer was always no.

Then, one day I was going through some books in a used book store and came across this:

It was like finding the holy grail. I couldn't believe what I was seeing... the answer to the problem. Everything changed with that discovery. I bought an inexpensive pair of aluminum needles and a skein of acrylic yarn and set out to learn the mysteries of knitting and purling. I learned how to cast on and then just knit and purled my way through the entire skein. Then I ripped it out, rolled it up and started again. All totalled I think I knitted that skein three times before I started to see even stitches and understood the process. I was thrilled.

Best of all, I could do it on my terms, as a left-hander. It felt comfortable and natural. It was like learning to march but doing it the way I wanted to and still ending up with the rest of the squad. It was like square dancing the left-hand star and not bumping into all of those right-hand star people. I was thoroughly and irreversibly hooked. I now knew how to knit and no one could take that away from me! I was 51 years old and I felt like a kindergardener who had just figured out how to tie her shoes!!!

I started knitting in 2003 and haven't stopped since! What a wonderful journey the process has been. And all because of a little 64 page book that found me in an out of the way used book store. It is out of print now, unfortunately, but it does occasionally surface on and ebay. I also saw a copy at a Knitter's conference at a swap session. The Author is Regina Hurlburt and the ISBN is 0-442-23585-2.


E said...

How awesome!! I am a self taught lefty also! Fortunately and unfortunately I knit backwards. I was told by one LYS owner I need to learn the "right" way. Another LYS owner said that it was wonderful and that skills like entrelac would be so easy for me to learn! The only thing that matters is that we can make do with what we have, interpret patterns, and create finished objects... To heck with the others... =)

donni said...

Yikes. I cannot believe the humiliation you had to endure at school. :-(

So glad you learned to knit YOUR way! :-)