I first encountered calligraphy as a boy when I found a large book on the English artist William Morris on my mother’s bookshelf. It was full of beautiful pictures—Morris was a tireless designer and activist printer—but an image of an unfinished medieval-style manuscript page fascinated me beyond all the rest:
I wanted to pick that old piece of paper up, scrutinize its fine, careful writing and beautiful borders of colorful vegetation, and pick up a pen and brush to finish where the artist had left off.
I kept this memory in mind as I tried to spark (or deepen) an interest in calligraphy in a group of upper elementary students in Berkeley last fall. Over eleven one-hour meetings, the class practiced simple Roman capitals and small Italic letters, first in pencil and then with dip pens: the same materials that “real-life” calligraphers like Morris used more than one hundred years ago, and that calligraphers still use today. Initially the idea of 9 and 10 year-olds using indelible ink seemed risky, but I followed a colleague’s somewhat mystical advice to “assume that the students already know what to do.” This proved to be among the course’s best features: by and large students rose to the challenge of loading their own Brause 3mm pen nibs with black Higgins Eternal ink, and took care to clean their equipment with water, a rag and an old toothbrush at the end of each session. The students’ intuitive care for the writing tools was exciting to see. Such respect contributes to a writer gaining control over her pen, and not the other way around. No page of beautiful writing could ever be completed without it.