Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is it a Gift to be Simple?

It is a dingy South London classroom, sometime in the past - my past. In the room are at least two people; one of them is Miss O’Keefe, my teacher, and the other one is my mother. My father may also be in the room, but I doubt it.  I may have been in the room myself, but I don’t remember it.  I think of the scene happening in black and white – everything was black and white in those days, or perhaps not black and white at all, more a multi-shaded grey. More than likely I was not in the room, but waiting outside in a dark corridor on an uncomfortable wooden chair – I remember spending a lot of time in corridors. Miss O’Keefe and my mother have come to a decision - they are going to change me for ever.  It is for my own good, they feel full justification and have no doubts about the correctness of their actions. They are going to change me from a little boy who is left-handed into a little boy that is right-handed.

Today we understand that ‘handedness’ is all to do with the brain, but in those less sophisticated days of not too long ago, handedness was considered to be a matter of the hand – nothing more. Children with a ‘lazy eye’ had a pair of spectacles fitted with a plastic cover on that eye; this made the other eye work harder. To Miss O’Keefe, hands were just like eyes. Miss O’Keefe was my teacher’s real name.  I think I can safely use it as she seemed well over a hundred years old and must certainly have died long ago. To my eyes at the time, she bore a striking resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West and seemed a pretty good personality match as well!  Miss O’Keefe was not a woman to be told she was wrong - she had decided that to change my handedness was simple – just tie the left hand behind the back each day at school and the right hand would simply take over. The tying was done, I remember, with a length of stiff green school ribbon, the type used to tie school whistles around the teacher’s neck. The tying was done each morning and released only at break times and lunchtime. My mother was given strict instructions that I was not permitted to use my left hand at home and my parents complied by stopping me writing or drawing or eating with my left hand.
So simple was my response, I stopped writing, I stopped drawing and, for a while I stopped eating as well. Eventually they won the battle and I started to use my right hand. I can just picture the mean and twisted smile on Miss O’Keefe’s face when victory was assured.

Being left-handed was not my only ‘difficulty’; I was also a ‘mirror writer’. This is not uncommon – if a mirror writing child is given a sentence or a string of numbers to copy, they do it, but in a mirror image starting on the left of the page and working to the right. It is an indication of nothing very much, but to Miss O’Keefe it was a sign of extreme laziness and required a severe telling off. More than once the telling off was so severe that I wet myself – this brought even stronger condemnation and punishment.

As an adult I write with my right hand, in fact my left hand is pretty much without function except for using a mouse on the computer which I am unable to use right-handed at all. Some things that I have never mastered I blame on this ‘changing of hands’ in my early years. I cannot for instance drive a car – even lessons from a teacher of disabled drivers failed to turn me into anything other than the world’s worst driver. So what I am an environmentalist - I love public transport and the world is better for having one less driver in it, but still .... it might have been nice at least to have had the option of not driving rather than having it thrust upon me. Is this lack of ability the result of my brain having to rewire itself to being right handed? Who knows.  I am told that people that have undergone this kind of change are often unable to fire a rifle with any accuracy, but as a pacifist vegetarian who has never picked up a rifle in my life, this is no problem at all! In addition I am an awful speller, often getting the middle parts of words entirely reversed so ‘indicator’ might be written as ‘indtacior’ and a phone number with ‘987536’ might be remembered as ‘935786’. This I blame on the childhood mirror writing and cannot say how having my handedness changed affected it.

I am getting angry as I write this, thinking about why this was done to me without my permission.  I could have been less troubled by being left alone. I am so angry that I am going to burst into that room and stop the decision being made. I am going back...

The door bursts open and I enter the room.  It is so strange to be back in that greyness, my mother and Miss O’Keefe look shocked and Miss O’Keefe is about to tell me off when I start to speak. This is weird!  It is me talking, but with my five year old voice – I can feel the lack of lung capacity behind what I am saying and this makes me feel so small and venerable. I say;

‘There is nothing, NOTHING wrong with being left handed, nothing wrong at all.  Leonardo da Vinci was left-handed, and a life-long mirror writer, Albert Einstein was left-handed, Winston Churchill was left handed, plus a whole load of US Presidents and Marilyn Monroe.’  Miss O’Keefe is just starting to open her mouth - I need to shout out to stop her... ‘Jimmi Hendrix was left-handed,  and Paul McCartney.’  I can see I’ve lost them at this point. ‘Paul McCartney from the Beatles.’  No.  They just look at one another in puzzlement. I understand what has happened - they think I’m crazy.  My mother is looking under the table to conceal her embarrassment - ‘Paul McCartney is a Beatle not a beetle’ I shout, but my mother has unceremonially lifted me from the floor and I am being carried crying and screaming from the room. I have ruined my chance to change my life by a stupid anachronism  - the Beatles haven’t happened yet.

In 1964, Quakers in the UK published a statement called ‘Towards a Quaker View of Sex.’  It has a very famous quote in it; ‘One should no more deplore homosexuality than left-handedness.’ This is outstanding - such an enlightened view in 1964 – Miss O’Keefe was still alive, for heaven’s sake! What she was doing to left-handed children (presumably I was not the only victim over her long career in the classroom), psychiatrists were doing to gays – trying to make them something they were not!

If you are a parent it is wrong to try and change your children from the way they are; of course you have to feed them, clothe them, house them, educate them and  love them, but don’t try to change them. If they are left handed that’s the way they are – leave them alone. If your child is growing up gay then why not leave them alone – a list of high-achieving gays is as long as the list of high achieving left-handers. If they are boys that are too feminine or girls that are not feminine enough just leave them alone. Love them, look after them, cherish them and leave them alone. Perhaps they will grow into high achievers or perhaps just into decent, simple, happy adults.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

One of the ways to ‘be simple’ is to not make things more complicated than they need be – like bringing up children.

(C) Ray Lovegrove 2011


Famous left-handers;
Simple Gifts;
Towards a Quaker View of Sex;

What's Hay Quaker up to this week?
  • sowing some late lettuce in the polytunnel (always the optimist)
  • planting rhubarb
  • planting garlic
  • digging bean trench for next summer


  1. Wow...
    I'm all teary-eyed and feeling heartbroken for all the little (and big!) people who have been changed, voluntarily or by force to 'fit in'.

    My heart aches for the little boy who stopped writing and drawing... and I'm SO thankful for the words from the grown man he became. :)

    Thank You.

  2. Very good points, Ray. It reminds me of "The King's Speech" flashbacks.

    When I was a music teacher, many beginning students (adult and child) discounted their potential to learn to play well because of left-handedness. But lefties are more right-brained than righties, and the right brain has more to do with expression and impression, artistic ability, and creativity. After a few lessons, they understood that being a lefty was no handicap to piano playing, and then it was all down to their attitude, concentration on learning the skills, and practicing.

    I'm a righty, and can't claim to be ambidextrous, but between piano and computer keyboards, I'm no butterfingers. I discovered a couple of years ago that I can seamlessly jump from computer to piano keyboard. But I cannot go from piano to computer without completely forgetting where the computer keys are and how I should type. It takes me 3-5 minutes to readjust my brain!

    So--when do YOU start your piano lessons? ;)

  3. My Granny knitted left-handed, not sure which hand she wrote with. Luckily I have always been right-handed, but when I was young I was aware of a left-handed child being disapproved of. It was in the mid 60's, in Canada. That teacher disapproved of quite a lot and believed that cavemen co-existed with dinosaurs. It is terrible what we sometimes do to make people conform to our ideas of how things should be.

  4. Thank you for such kind and thoughtful comments. I am so grateful to you all for taking the time to write. Piano ~ that would be nice but I type only with one finger and that would be some challenge!

  5. This infuriates me. So much harm has been caused by adults trying to fix in children what isn't broken. I have had my own battles to fight, and I was harmed too. It is one reason my children aren't in school -- although in some things there have been improvements, there are still too many ways in which normal people are made to believe that they're inferior and not capable.

    My youngest child is left-handed and she is a mirror-writer as well (although she is growing out of it as she ages.) I'm grateful to live in this time, when we can choose to see it as something wonderful and interesting about her brain. You know, although I doubt there is much of the forced handedness-changing going on anymore, that mirror writing would have been squashed out pretty quickly had she been in school. I can imagine the frustration and anger on her part had that happened. It's such a shame that it's happened, that it's still happening. We all deserve better.