Left is Right

My first grade teacher was a very pretty young nun who reminded me of a nun statue my family had in the living room at home.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the teacher. She was the prettiest and youngest nun I had ever laid eyes on. Although this was my first day of first grade, I was used to seeing the sisters who taught at my parish school. Every Sunday morning when my family went to Mass, we sat two pews behind them.

Since this was our first day of school, most of our parents personally delivered us to the classroom. After they left and the class, with the exception of one sobbing student, settled down. Sister Donna passed out sheets of paper with simple pictures on them. She instructed, “Children, get out your crayons and color the ball and teddy bear.” It was exciting to finally be in school like my big brothers and sisters. Using broad strokes, I colored the ball blue and the teddy bear brown.

Several days into the school year, Sister Donna passed out lined paper for us to practice printing alphabet letters. The papers had widely spaced solid blue lines. Not as easy to see, between the blue lines were faint, light-green, dotted lines. Sister drew lines on the blackboard mimicking the lines on our papers.

Grasping chalk in her right hand, Sister Donna glanced over her shoulder at the class to make sure everyone was looking. “Watch closely,” she demanded, “so you know what needs to be done.” After printing the letters on the black surface, she made a quick tour through the room to make sure the students understood what she wanted.

Satisfied with what she saw, Sister happily complemented, “Very good! Practice printing the letters over and over until they are neat and easy to read. Make the capital ‘A’ look like a tall tent that touches the top blue line and the bottom blue line. Make the lower case ‘a’ nice and round like an apple that sits on the bottom blue line and is no taller than the green dotted line. While you’re working on that, I’ll come around to everyone and help.”  

In the silence that followed, Sister Donna went from desk to desk. I looked forward to her help! Finally, she stood behind my right shoulder watching me print. Happy anticipation of her help made my left-handed, death grip on the school-issued, over-sized, #2 lead pencil tighten.

After a few moments, Sister Donna silently moved on to look over the shoulder of the student ahead of me. I wanted to cry. Why didn’t she show me the right way to hold the pencil or direct the slant of my paper like she did with others? Did she dislike me?

I never learned to write neatly. Even now as an older adult, I am ashamed of my messy, childish script. My letters lean every which way and come out smudged because as I write, I drag my fist through the ink, smearing it on the paper and all along my little pinky finger.

Left handers have always been viewed with suspicion. Left is seen as wrong or evil. German, Italian, Russian and Latin all have words meaning “left-handed”. They translate as; awkward, clumsy, crooked, maimed, dishonest and sinister.

It is estimated that only ten to twelve percent of the world population is left-handed, with men more often than women. Some studies also show that mothers who are over forty at the time of a child’s birth are 128% more likely to give birth to a left-hander than a younger mother.

This data doesn’t entirely match my experience. In my family of seven, three of us are left-handed; one brother, a sister and I. Mom was in her thirties when she had them and forty-four when she had me.

I also question what is considered being left-handed. I know people who are so profoundly left-handed they can’t use a right-handed scissor or use pour lips on cast iron skillets. I only write, eat and bat left-handedly. Am I a true left-hander?

All of my working years were spent as a Certified Nursing Assistant. Many patients commented on my left-handedness. Some of them told me their teachers forced them to write with their right hands. Some said they were struck with a ruler whenever they picked up a pencil with their left hand. One patient told me her teacher tied her left arm down to her side.

Hearing these stories made me appreciate Sister Donna. Being so young, she probably had just graduated from college and the latest teaching theory in the mid 1950’s must have been; ‘leave the left-handers alone’.

Thank-you Sister Donna for not punishing me for something I have no control over. That would have hurt more than being ignored!


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