On being left-handed

by Les

I’ve known I was different as far back as I can remember. I use my left hand for doing things that most people do with their right hand.

Before I started school, that really made no difference. I used a spoon with my left hand, instead of with my right, but no one in the family seemed to care. When I learned to use both a fork and a knife at the same time, I saw no problem using the knife in my right hand like everyone else, but a spoon or a fork by itself automatically went into my left hand. So did a pencil or a crayon. More complex tools were generally a purely theoretical problem for me. Watching my father using it, I could see that a scythe was clearly and unforgivingly right-handed. But I wasn’t even allowed to go near a scythe. I was allowed to use scissors, the rather blunt kind small children are allowed to use, and I found them clumsy. But so did my right-handed twin brother.

School was different. The teachers had this obsession about only writing with the right hand. They’d kindly and gently, but firmly, take the pencil out of my left hand and put it in my right. As soon as the teacher turned her back, I swapped hands again.

About the middle of first grade, they gave up and let me use my left hand. I savored that victory for many years. I was over thirty when my mother mentioned she had talked to the principal and told her to have Miss Andrews stop it.

But the difficulties for a left-hander multiply as you get older. At home, my father started to let me use his eggbeater style hand drill. This was perhaps the first real tool I ran across which was distinctly right-handed. At school, it was worse. In second grade we started using pens, steel-nibbed pens you dip into liquid ink. We learned cursive writing, which came with detailed instruction about how to hold the pen for each stroke. These instructions were perfectly reasonable for right-handers. And totally useless for left-handers. We were completely on our own. I say “we”, but I think I was the only one in my class. But I was expected to produce the same elegant results everyone else aspired to. It must have helped develop my inventiveness. By the end of second grade I could write reasonably well, even though I had to keep my hand curled around to avoid smearing what I had just written.

As I got older I started using more and more tools which are uncompromisingly right-handed, from real scissors to can openers, from electric drills to pruning shears. Take electric drills. The first one my father bought had a button on the left side to lock the trigger in the “on” position, positioned where a right-handed person could conveniently use the right thumb to press it, but where a left-handed person pressed it with the trigger finger without trying.

When I learned to shoot a rifle, it was a bolt-action Lee-Enfield, with the bolt lever on the right side. Not good for lefties.

The major sport I played growing up was rugby, which is pretty much the same for either handedness. I also played a bit of tennis, where being left-handed is actually an advantage: everyone is most familiar when playing against right-handed players because there are so many more of them, so left-handed opponents are more of a challenge.

When I took up sailing, I found I had an advantage too. Sailing generally calls for doing everything with one hand half the time, and with the other hand the other half of the time. A left-hander must develop a more functional non-dominant hand just to function in a right-handed world, so he is at an advantage where ambidexterity is required.

I was at Sydney University when I first came across classrooms fitted with desks consisting of a chair equipped with a small attached table, usually folding, on the right. Completely unusable for a left-hander.

As the world has become more automated I find new challenges almost every day. The keyboard I’m typing with right now has a numeric keypad on the right, where it is completely useless to a left-hander. On the other hand, my laptop has a touchpad in the middle, where it is almost as difficult to use for a right-hander as for a left-hander.

While I’m on the subject of computers, I need to mention a mouse I received free when I bought something from a computer store last year. It has a molded shape, and fits the right hand very nicely, with two additional buttons to be used by the (right) thumb. In the left hand, those two buttons could be operated by sideways movement of a crooked third finger. It’s uncomfortable to hold, anyway. I don’t know whether it works or not, because I’ve never tried it.

I go to use a typical ATM, or pay-at-the-pump gas pump, and it has the card slot on the right hand side. I pay for a purchase in a store and not only is the card reader on the right, but it asks for a signature on a tiny touch-sensitive screen, often arranged against the right side of a terminal where there is no space for a hand to the left, and where a hand dragging across the screen behind the signature activates the active buttons above the signature box, doing anything from cancelling the transaction to popping up a warning not to write outside the box.

This may seem like a long litany of moans about a right-handed world. But I enjoy being different. I don’t have to fit in with the crowd because I literally don’t fit in. I’m in good company. Most of the U.S. Presidents since World War 2 have been left-handed (Truman, Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton and Obama), though Truman and Reagan were forced by teachers to write with their right hands. Other well-known left-handers include Michael Bloomberg (Mayor of New York), David Cameron (Prime Minister of U.K.), Bill Gates, and Prince William.