Dearly belovèd, my text for today is this:
‘Since the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body, only left-handed people are in their right mind.’
Copyright © Anything Left-Handed.
Yes, I am one of those select human beings who is left-handed. Moreover, both our children share this delightful trait. My wife, who writes with her right hand, is ‘mixed handed’ – that is, not ambidextrous, where one can perform the same task with either hand, but she is largely split between those activities she performs right-handed and those for which she uses her left hand. Having said that, she is ambidextrous in the use of a computer mouse, and that is important in what I am about to type.
With three left-handers in the house and one who can use a mouse left or right-handed, we have both our PCs set up left-handed. That is more than putting the mouse to the left of the keyboard. It means (in the case of Microsoft Windows) going into Control Panel, finding the Mouse applet, and reversing the mouse buttons, so that left-handers still use their index finger and ring finger as right-handers would do. Just moving the mouse over would mean excessive use of the ring finger and might risk tendinitis. (Ubuntu Linux is similar; with Apple Macs, I understand it’s irrelevant, with mice that have only one button.)
Thus, our children have learned how to use a computer at home in a left-handed fashion. That means no damage to their natural hand-eye co-ordination. It also means no criticism from ignorant right-handers, telling them they are doing things wrongly, which is a common experience for left-handers, and thus little surprise we are more clumsy than the average, and sometimes suffer lower than average self-esteem due to regularly being told we are wrong when we’re not.
Here comes the problem. Nobody forces left-handers to write right-handed any more, to my knowledge – although I once worked with someone younger than me to whom that had happened. But it is astonishing to find schools not understanding that left-handers should be able to use PCs left-handed. Our children’s school didn’t. Our daughter was coming home from school saying she was struggling with the school computers, and always getting her clicks wrong. She was distressed.
We had raised the issue at a parents’ evening, only to be told that left-handed children were adaptable. To which my question has always been, ‘Why?’ We have to be! I wrote to the teacher, asking that they change the aforementioned mouse settings in Control Panel. No joy.
So another letter. I had downloaded a piece of software recommended by Anything Left-Handed. Once installed, you only have to click CTRL-F12 to alternate between left and right-handed use. Simple? No, the IT guy wasn’t prepared to go round, installing it on every computer.
Instead, they suggested we bought Rebekah her own wireless mouse that she could use. Then it dawned on me – doh! – that it was no solution. The change had to be in the operating system, not the mouse. So I wrote again, also pointing out this wasn’t a Rebekah issue, this was potentially an issue for the 10% of the school population that was left-handed.
All of which brought us to today, and a meeting with the Head Teacher. Now, we love the Head. I have known her for three years, which is two years before she came to our children’s school, because she twisted my arm into taking assemblies at her previous school. She is a lovely, caring person, and in a recent OFSTED was almost promoted to sainthood for her dynamic leadership. She deserved every word of praise.
Nevertheless, I was nervous about seeing her. But there was good news. She had phoned the county IT department. They had confirmed what I had said about Control Panel, so it’s now all systems go, and our children will be able to use the computers left-handed. The Head and Deputy had never come across the issue before, which surprised me, but maybe I’m just a militant left-hander with minor geek tendencies who will stand up for his children! They needed some reassurance that if children learned PCs left-handed at primary school that they would not then have to switch back to right-handed in secondary schools or in industry, but I couldn’t see that would be a problem. They also have decided to survey who is left and who is right-handed in the school, and have asked me for any research on whether left-handers are better or worse at any particular curriculum subjects. It is an amazing result for something that looked so unpromising when I was running up against a major lack of understanding.
I am also thrilled if this means the school is open to expanding its horizons. It is better than I faced at school, although I had far more problems at secondary school than primary. Of course, computers weren’t in schools back in the Stone Age, and primary school was made quite easy by the fact that we only wrote with a pencil. Yes, I got some discoloration on the small finger of my left hand as I moved across the page from left to right, but that was the worst it got. I’ll grant they didn’t know to teach me to slant my paper at 45°, and nor did they know about left-handed scissors (but my parents did, thanks to Anything Left-Handed’s old shop in Brewer Street, London). But it wasn’t oppressive.
Secondary school was, though. I went to a young school where the Head wanted to infuse it with instant ancient traditions. In fact, my brother-in-law read the Wikipedia entry on it and said to my sister, “Good grief, you went to Hogwarts!” It was compulsory to write with a fountain pen. Fountain pens are torture for left-handers, due to our pushing of a pen across the paper. (Indeed, it remains the one thing I don’t enjoy about conducting weddings as a minister – I must use a fountain pen with registrar’s ink to complete the registers.) Ballpoints are different. One sympathetic Maths teacher told me to disregard the school rules and use a ballpoint. However, I would have risked punishment for doing so. So it was that I began the ‘hook’ style of writing that many left-handers adopt. It isn’t good or healthy, but I didn’t know that then. I was just trying to reduce my frequent use of blotting paper.
Similarly, PE lessons were a problem. The one sport at which I was remotely talented was cricket. I bowled left arm. The Games teacher (sorry, ‘master’) would give me the usual ignorant instruction that many left-handers endure in all sorts of situations: “Just reverse what I tell the right-handers.” It was only when a former Middlesex and England cricketer, Jack Robertson, came in to do some coaching, that this was challenged. He told the Games master that left-handers had a special contribution to cricket and I should be nurtured. I don’t think I ever was, once Jack stopped coming.
Worst of all was probably Sixth Form (that’s Years Twelve and Thirteen in new money). We were provided with seats that had a hinged desktop on them. They were all hinged on the right, on which side the desktop was extended so you could rest your right arm. They were shorter on the left side, making for a very stretched writing style. I believe it was one major factor that contributed to the sudden onset of severe neck pain a month before my A-Levels (which I never took).
Much of the time, we left-handers have to accept we are the minority and that most of life is going to be set up for the majority. It doesn’t make it any easier for us to be at a bank or Post Office counter where the pen is always chained on the right, or to have paying-in books with a counterfoil on the left – although major banks have begun to learn their lesson on that and now offer left-handed paying in books and cheque books.
Not only that, the Anything Left-Handed people offer a wonderful range of resources, including one of my favourites, the left-handed ruler. It’s numbered from right to left, which is instinctively the way my brain works. Come and see how I file my books or CDs and you’ll see my point.
We also have certain advantages in life, and should not just play the victim. It is a blessing to be in a country where we have right-hand drive cars, because it means the gear lever is on the driver’s left, and falls to our stronger hand. In most sports, the different angle used by a left-hander, being less common, is a strategic advantage. Rafael Nadal, the current men’s tennis number one, plays left-handed but in life writes right-handed. The only exception I know is hockey, where it is contrary to the laws to play left-handed.
But overall, we are at a disadvantage. I would hate people to interpret this as my saying we are disabled, because we are not. However, given the barriers I have had to cross for the sake of my children – but also the warm-hearted response of the Head – I do hope others will take the trouble to understand.
And in the meantime, more power to Anything Left-Handed: you do a great job and deserve tons of custom.