Armed with nothing more than a mechanical pencil and hard-won focus, third-grader Ben Myers earned a $1,000 top prize in a national contest this spring.
Some might find it surprising that the Denver Elementary School student was recognized for his penmanship, a skill often considered a dying art in the age of texting and emojis.
No one was more surprised than Ben’s family.
Four years ago, they couldn’t have imagined he’d enter the National Handwriting Contest, which has a category that recognizes students with special needs.
As a toddler, Ben — diagnosed with autism at age 3 — refused to doodle or color. That only started to change during a lengthy hospital stay when he was 5 and likely picked up crayons out of sheer boredom.
“Before then, he had no interest at all in those things,” says his mom, Lori Myers. “None.”
Today, Ben enjoys writing and offers a sample on demand.
The shift is so remarkable that his mother started crying when Principal Angela Marley told her about his contest victory last month. She and Ben were checking in after a morning of therapy, which has helped Ben make great strides.
Even in a school that promotes technology with tablets or computers for every student, Ben prefers writing over typing. He uses mechanical pencils because he presses too hard on traditional versions, often breaking the tips and interrupting his flow.
“I’m good with writing,” says Ben, 9, whose work was entered in the contest by Denver learning support specialist Katie Schlegelmilch. “I didn’t really think I’d win the national one.”
Ben has worked hard to improve his printing — remembering all the places capitals are required can sometimes still trip him up — and focuses intensely when writing.
Teacher Brynn Gallagher calls the results “beautiful and precise.”
“We focus a lot on neatness, spelling, mechanics,” Gallagher says of her class. “We’re looking for them to be much more independent.”
Ben’s award is named after Nicholas Maxim, a Maine student who submitted an outstanding 2011 cursive entry despite being born without hands or lower arms. Zaner-Bloser, the educational products company that sponsors the contest, added a special-needs category in recognition of his success.
Entries for the Nicholas Maxim Award come from students with cognitive or physical delays or disabilities and are judged by a panel of occupational therapists.
Lori Myers says Ben — a curly-haired fan of hiking, bowling and Irish dance — has had to overcome many challenges to become successful in school. He’s begun paying more attention to detail, whether writing, learning about planets, or memorizing facts about his favorite wrestlers.
His win is a source of pride for Ben, but it has also served as an inspirational tool for Gallagher.
“It was a great way to show everyone in our class what can happen when you’re working hard and really putting your mind to something,” she says.
Penmanship, she notes, will become more important as students move through upper grades that demand more note taking, and math classes that require students to show their work.
Her students are also learning cursive writing this spring. Though they aren’t tested on it, they have worked their way through the alphabet and covered most of the fundamentals of longhand.
Ben’s excited to work on cursive in class; he previously asked his mom to teach it to him.
“When I do any kind of writing, I try to make it as good as I can,” Ben says.
That should come in handy as Gallagher’s class wraps a unit on persuasive writing. Ben and several classmates are trying to convince Principal Marley that the school needs naptime.
If she can’t read their letters, Ben explains, “then she won’t know why napping is important.”
The principal and representatives from Zaner-Bloser will present Ben with his winnings before the school year ends. Denver Elementary School will also get a gift card to use toward print or digital teaching resources.
Marley encourages her teachers to enter student work each year. The contest is open to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Zaner-Bloser estimates more than 4 million have participated over 26 years.