Miss Panero & The Fountain Pen

My first experience of using a fountain pen

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I remember the first time I was given a pen for writing. I was excited. It was a fountain pen and one had to fill ink in it by pulling the small knob attached at the end of the plastic tube. The ink flowed into the tube using the suction principle. Not that the ink knew about this principle, but it flowed in nevertheless.

There was an ink bottle kept on a table in the corner of the classroom. After we had finished filling our fountain pens with ink, we would wipe the nibs on the hair on the side of our heads. Perhaps hoping the extra ink would soak into our scalp and make us more scholarly.

Miss Panero was my class teacher. An unmarried woman in her sixties. She wore round rimmed glasses that perched on her sharp nose. She was from Calcutta and lived with another spinster teacher in the boarding school campus.

The arrival of the fountain pen in my life was an indication that I was old enough to write with ink. There was an unstated expectation that what I write henceforth would be more legible, with fewer mistakes. It was a rite of passage. A note of trust. In recognition of that trust, I was handed the fountain pen. As though I was being knighted for coming of age, under the strict supervision of Miss. Panero.

She told us how the fountain pen was to be used. In case of any errors, we were to cancel the word in a clean systematic manner. One stroke for one alphabet. The stroke had to be a backslash, not a horizontal line, not a forward slash, but a backslash. It was cumbersome to cancel each alphabet one stroke at a time, yet that is what we were supposed to do. And we all did as we were told.

We did not get a chance to see each other’s books and our collective artistry with the fountain pen. I felt my writing was fairly clean to go under the scrutinising gaze of Miss Panero. When the English period was over, that is what she taught us, a shrill bell rang signalling the end of the class. We quickly closed our books and screwed back the cover of our pens.

I forgot to mention each of our pens had our names on it. A small white strip of paper with a transparent scotch tape pasted over it. I got up and put my book on the table along with my cherished fountain pen. Ms Panero collected the books in one big pile and put all the fountain pens back in the bag that she had got them in. The books were for correction. And the fountain pens were for her safe custody.

The next day Miss Panero handed our books to us. I eagerly opened to see what remarks I had. I was aghast. The page was bathed in red. There were red slashes everywhere. I wondered what I had done wrong. The spellings were in order, the words touched the line evenly and I had cancelled the misspelt words in exactly the way I was told. I turned another page and there at the end of it I saw the unmistakable scrawl of Miss Panero’s writing.

“Write towards the right.”

Write towards the right? What did that mean?

I pondered on that sentence like a Zen monk ponders over a Haiku. Trying to decipher the mystery behind those words. No matter how hard I tried, I just could not understand what “Write towards the right” meant. It would have been easier to go up to her and simply ask what she meant, but then for me it was like crossing the Indian Ocean infested with sharks.

Asking Miss Panero what she meant by the red remark in my book would be a huge risk for my eleven year old self. What if she showed my book to the entire class and everyone saw the sea of red ink bathing my pages. What if she made a statement that would result in my classmates making fun of me? I just could not allow that to happen. So I did what any self-respecting eleven year old would do. I sat quiet and acted as though nothing had happened.

As I handed my book to Miss Panero that day, I was dreading what would come my way tomorrow. I was hoping that I had written the way she wanted me to. Made extra sure that all my T’s were crossed and I’s were dotted. But deep down something in me knew that this was not the end of it.

The next day Miss Panero returned everyone’s book for writing their lesson of that day. Except mine. I panicked. To not be doing something that everyone in the class was doing was worse than death. Being part of the group was social oxygen for my little self. Even if the group was being given painful injections, I rather be a part of the group, than be excluded.

I sat in misery awaiting my fate.

While the others were busy with their writing, Miss Panero called me to the table. Nervously, I approached her table. I could smell her. A lemony floral fragrance.

“Yes Miss.” I said as soon as I was standing within hearing distance of her.

“I told you to write towards right. Why are you not doing that?” she asked with genuine concern just as a doctor would address a patient, who is not following the simplest instructions for his own betterment.

I looked at her, not knowing what to say.

“I am sorry Miss. I don’t understand. What is right towards right?” I said finally.

She opened my book and showed my writing to me. “See here. All your written alphabets are slanting towards the left. I want you to write all your alphabets slanting towards the right, so that eventually your alphabets will become straight and centred. Do you understand now? ” she explained.

“Oh! So that is what ‘write towards right’ meant” I said in my mind. “Yes Miss.” I said to her excited at having finally deciphered the mystery of right towards right.

She nodded her head in approval and gave me my book. I quickly returned to my seat before anyone noticed something was wrong.

So, I started writing towards the right.

Until this day, my handwriting slants towards the right. Miss Panero forgot to correct me, that I had written enough towards the right and it was time to centre my writing. Neither did I remind her. Miss Panero was my class teacher for one school term. The next year I moved to another school and another class where the teacher never bothered about how I wrote, much less what I wrote. So then, there was no reason to centre my writing.

Years later, someone was analysing my writing. She said, “You are ambitious, visionary and forward looking! All your alphabets are slanting towards the right.” I smiled.

Years later I revisited school and learnt that Miss Panero had passed away. As I passed her residence, I recalled my tryst with her and the fountain pen.

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