Left-handed Celebration

American Icons, People, Traditions
on October 12, 2011
David Mudd First-grade teacher Amy Gilmore says being a lefty helps her teach left-handed students to write.

First-grade teacher Amy Gilmore can count on having one or two left-handed pupils every year at Advance Elementary School in Advance, Mo. (pop. 1,244), but they never feel left out.

"They may not have a left-handed parent at home, but I can give them that boost," says Gilmore, 33, an enthusiastic lefty. "I'm better able to help left-handed students master their handwriting because I can simply place my left hand over theirs and away we write."

About one in 10 Americans is left-handed. As recently as 50 years ago, the trait was considered a disadvantage, even a curse. Biblical references yoked the left to the dark side, some people believed, whereas the favored sat on the "right hand of God."

Related: Left-handed Celebration

Today, left-handers celebrate their distinction. Some manufacturers and retailers even cater to the left-handed population, producing and selling everything from spiral notebooks that open from left to right to watches that rotate counterclockwise and have reversed numbers.

Being a lefty does come in handy in the classroom, says Gilmore, as she prints the week's sentence-"It's a great day to play in the rain!"-in large letters on a computerized projection screen. As she writes, she stands to the right of each word, and thus every word is visible to the entire class.

Two of Gilmore's 18 pupils, Annie Duffield and Chase Sauceda, pick up their pencils with their left hands and set to work copying the sentence onto their lined paper.

Gilmore, who is proficient writing with both hands, guides Annie's hand as she forms a letter. She also teaches the 7-year-old how to use a short ruler to leave proper space between words. A right-handed student can use his left index finger as a word spacer, but that trick doesn't work in reverse.

Along with word spacers, Gilmore supplies left-handed scissors for her lefty pupils. They've adapted, too, to using their less dominant hands for many tasks, as freckled-faced Annie proudly points out.

"I can eat dumplings with any hand," she says.

From reviled to revered
During her own lifetime, Betsy Starkey, 52, of Stoughton, Wis. (pop. 12,354), has seen dramatic changes in attitudes about left-handedness.

"My kindergarten teacher called my mother into the school and suggested that she and my father tie my left hand behind my back, so I would be forced to use my right hand," Starkey recalls. "She said if I continued to use it as my dominant hand, I would grow up to be an evil person."

Starkey remembers her mother's outburst. "She yelled at my teacher and told her 'Betsy's grandfather is left-handed. He is a genius and a kind person. He speaks and writes seven languages."'

In fact, the list of left-handed athletes, artists, authors, musicians, presidents and scientists is impressive—from Babe Ruth and Beethoven to Albert Einstein and President Obama.

Their advantage is scientifically based on how the brain works. Each side of the brain specializes in different activities, a process called lateralization, which Dr. Amar Klar, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md., has researched for 35 years. Lefties have more bilateral brain activity, which can be an advantage in visualizing and solving problems.

"It's common knowledge that doctors have a high incidence of left-handedness," says Klar, 63, "and in fencing, tennis and baseball, the biggest guns are left-handed."

Klar's research suggests that a single dominant gene determines right-handedness. People who don't inherit the right-hand gene have an equal chance of being right- or left-handed.

"Just like when you toss a coin, it's 50-50," Klar says.

That coin toss means dollars for Cory Kutruff, 21, a studious southpaw at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. (pop. 6,918), who in 2009 received the Beckley Scholarship for left-handed students. The scholarship honors the late Mary and Frederick Beckley, two lefties who were paired in 1919 by a tennis coach, who wasn't yet wise to the blessings of being a lefty.

"On the financial-aid form is a question asking which hand you use and I check-marked 'left-handed,"' Kutruff says. "I got something for being me."

Benefits and bumbles
Lefties take pride in being themselves, while acknowledging the aggravations-water fountain knobs, refrigerator doors and "enter" buttons on computers designed for righties-and advantages of their handedness.

"I've always felt special because I was the one picked out of the crowd. Someone would say, 'Oh, Russell is left-handed!" says Russell Cope, 53, of Southlake, Texas (pop. 21,519), who founded the website beinglefthanded.com to celebrate lefties.

"You get a little individual attention because you're left-handed," Cope says. "In sports especially, the coach has to work with you differently."

Cope knows firsthand because he and his wife, Angela, have three children, all lefties who've played baseball, softball or basketball. He helps coach the Keller (Texas) Raiders where son Mark, 12, is a pitcher.

"A left-handed pitcher's natural throw kind of curves the ball without doing anything special, and most right-handed batters can't handle it," Cope says.

Mark says that his left-handedness gives him the upper hand on the basketball court, too.

"Most people will think I'll go right-handed, but I've trained myself to be right-handed or left-handed, so I can switch shots," he says. "I'm proud to be left-handed."

Being left-handed can provide benefits- as well as bumbles-beyond sports.

"I find a lot of creative people are lefties," says southpaw Rhonda Gudath, 50, of Catskill, N.Y. (pop. 4,392), a watercolorist and quilter. Many of her artistic friends who design their own quilts are left-handed.

Gudath, too, delights in being left-handed, despite fumbles and frustrations whenever she bakes and reaches for her Pyrex glass measuring cup. "I pick it up with my left hand and get milliliters," Gudath says. "Then I turn it around with my right hand to get cups."

As for opening a can with her manual can opener, Gudath wrestles a bit with the hand crank, then finds a creative solution.

"I usually say, 'Here, open this' to whoever's in the kitchen," she says.

For lefties only
Can openers, corkscrews, pruning shears and guitars are readily available today for left-handers, but that wasn't the case in 1988 when Dale Hersh, of Clarks Summit, Pa. (pop. 5,126), found herself at a loss while trying to cut patterns in a craft class. She had forgotten to bring her left-handed scissors, one of the few lefty products she owned.

"I had to wait for someone right-handed to cut it out for me," says Hersh, 58. Her frustration inspired her to locate every left-handed product then being manufactured and to found Lefty's Corner mail-order business.

"I told my husband that there's got to be a place for left-handers," says Hersh, who now sells more than 150 different products designed for left-handed people at leftyscorner.com.

At Lefty's San Francisco, owner Margaret Majua helps develop left-handed products and sells several hundred different items in the store and through leftyslefthanded.com. The business carries more than 40 kinds of left-handed scissors alone, from embroidery to barber to surgical, but the most popular item is a spatula angled for lefties.

"A lot of people say they've adapted to right-handed products, but they've compromised," says Majua, 63. "You can get used to wearing your right shoe on your left foot, but it's not as comfortable."