1960’s Tablet Desk
Accession Number: 2009.2.5
Manufacturer: Irwin Seating

I was thrilled and honored when Gayle DeBruyn asked me to write an Artifact blog. I wandered the rows of archives, seeking an item that would resonate with me.

Then I saw it. My heart began to race, my palms sweat, and a flood of memories came pouring back. The item? My nemeses: A 1960’s tablet desk.

“What’s the big deal?” you are no doubt wondering—unless, like me, you’re left-handed.

Recall your grade school classrooms. Rows and rows of tablet desks, neatly lined up and facing forward—and every single one had the “arm” on the right side, forcing lefties like me to squirm, contort, and twist in a valiant effort to write on the right-hand side. I clutched my writing instrument so hard that I still have a callus on the second finger of my left hand, which was often streaked with lead or ink as I drug my hand through the freshly composed letters. Write. Drag. Smudge.

Why were there no tablet desks for lefties? I did a little research. A study carried out by the University College London (UCL) found that the proportion of left-handed people stood at just 3% of the population only 100 years ago, whereas now it has increased to 11%.

Professors at UCL concluded that this increase might be attributed to the style of teaching in the early 20th century where strict classroom rules forced all children to learn to write with their right-hand.  Even as recently as the 1960s some schoolchildren’s left hands were tied behind their backs to ensure that they wrote with their right. (Lefties were also known as “gibble fists” in the 18th and 19th century and were severely discriminated against.)

My left hand wasn’t tied behind my back. Instead, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Bone (yes, that was her name), would simply send John Parzgnat (a fellow lefty) and me outside to play during cursive penmanship lessons, until we were caught by the principal and returned to class, where we were basically ignored during said lessons.

The struggle—me against the desk—continued until 5th grade, when Mrs. Shaw, herself a lefty, gave me private penmanship lessons. My writing became legible and I learned to adapt. Oftentimes, I would sit in one tablet armchair, and write on the surface of the tablet to my left. As I grew older, I would survey any new classroom, hoping against hope that there would be one left-handed tablet desk. If there was, I pounced on it like a bird on a French fry. If not, I would physically turn the whole desk, so that when I turned to the right to write, I would still be facing forward, and therefore not accused of copying the paper of the person to my right.

Today, I take pride in my lefty-ness. We lefties are members of an exclusive club. We are creative. We are “in our right minds.” Yet I still do an internal “happy dance” whenever I see any desk configuration with its writing surface on the left.

Pamela Patton is, of all things, a freelance writer. She has beautiful penmanship, although she confesses to “mousing” with her right hand.