When my son was 4½, he couldn’t hold a crayon, let alone draw even the simplest picture. He wasn’t interested, I wasn’t concerned, and, frankly, I had no idea at what age kids started doing these things anyway.
This wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t been living in New York City and if my son had not been about to enter the notorious private school kindergarten application process, where drawing a self-portrait and signing it is part of the child’s “interview” and apparently an age-appropriate activity.
I decided to take him to a handwriting expert. She watched as he switched his pencil back and forth between his left and right hands, failed to form a single letter and slammed the pencil down in frustration. It didn’t take her long to determine that he was left-handed.
All this coincided with the 2008 election, where much was made of the fact that both John McCain and Barack Obama were left-handed, thus guaranteeing our fifth lefty president since the lefty Gerald Ford assumed office in 1974.
Articles marveling at the coincidence of high-ranking, left-handed politicians (Bill Clinton, Mike Bloomberg) appeared, usually also mentioning the number of prominent southpaw musicians, artists and performers as well: Sting, Paul McCartney, Michelangelo, Jon Stewart, Tina Fey and so on. It made me wonder: did they have tenuous beginnings too? Were these possible struggles somehow related to their talents?
My father-in-law was the late Peter Benchley, best known for writing Jaws. He too was lefty. (Leftiness is partly genetic—more on that later.) My mother-in-law verified that he did have a hard time learning to read and write. Turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that a high percentage of dyslexic people are also left-handed.
A couple of months later, one rainy night, I was walking my dogs on a deserted strip of Madison Avenue. Out of nowhere, I heard an English accent: “Well, you’ve got your hands full, don’t you?” It was Paul McCartney. I strode up to him and said, “Can I ask you a question?” and then jumped in: “When you were younger, did you have any trouble being left-handed?”
I’m sure he was relieved that I didn’t ask him why the Beatles really broke up. So we walked several blocks together, and he told me about how he used to “mirror-write,” a common occurrence among lefties where they write backwards, from right to left, as if the words could be read in a mirror. Sounded like a problem to me.
“So, what did you do?” I asked.
“Well, the nuns told me to fix it, pronto—and so I worked on it and did.” He then told me that in the early days, before there were left-handed guitars, it was easier to play a right-handed guitar upside-down than to play it right-handed, a trick Jimi Hendrix used as well.
A friend who works for Charlie Rose relayed my questions to Mayor Bloomberg when he was booked as a guest. Bloomberg revealed that, while he hadn’t had any learning difficulties in school, he used to get in trouble for illegible handwriting. He would smudge the ink as he moved his left hand and forearm across the paper—in writing, lefties push their pens across the paper rather than pulling them as do righties. He always thought this was unfair—and to this day, he’s angry he had to use right-sided desks.
These are not uncommon experiences for lefties: many, like my son, do have trouble learning to write and are often criticized for their poor penmanship or incorrect pencil grips. One look at President Obama’s 90-degree hooked-arm handwriting posture, which is not unique to him, and it’s clear that something different is happening. Though I don’t know for certain why Obama writes that way, many lefties choose to hook because it allows them to prevent smudging and to see what they have just written.