I cannot remember why I thought that November 2006 was the perfect time to tell the world that our Junior School children learned to write with a fountain pen in Primary 6, and that each child owned their own pen. Perhaps it was linked to the recent implementation of our nine school values, which were based on our long-held realisation that children respond very well to high standards and expectations. Learning to write with a fountain pen is a challenge, which few children are given the chance to master, but to us the skill exemplified high standards and allowed children to show their commitment by having to work hard to master a new skill.
The real trigger was in fact the Sunday Times Letters section, which had recently printed a few fountain pen: for or against letters. It had people debating whether writing in this manner was a skill for life, or unnecessary in the computer age. I contacted the Sunday Times and suggesting that they might like to send a reporter to a school where children continued to be taught to write with a fountain pen. When the Education Correspondent arrived, he chatted with a few children and with me, a photograph of a boy practising his hand-writing skills was taken and that was it. I had hoped for a few lines in the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times, which would be good PR for the school. Instead, I was amazed to find the story almost filling a page in the national edition with quotes from all sorts of experts, as well as excellent coverage of the reporter’s visit to the school. I was pleased and again assumed that was that.
Little did I know that within 24 hours I would be interviewed twice on BBC 5 Live, on an early news programme and later by Peter Allan on Drivetime. I was soon being interviewed on various local radio stations and I also spoke with Jeremy Vine at lunchtime on Radio 2. Very quickly the story was syndicated widely in different newspapers and suddenly we went viral, not that I had any idea what that meant at the time!
Social media posts went round the world, bloggers began to write about the story and, believe it or not, within a couple of weeks a Google search of my name and the word ‘fountain-pens’ came up with more than 10 million results. I have just tried the same now 14 years after the event and it still indicates 3,390,300 including links to the New York Herald Tribune, The Denver Post and the Daily Telegraph. I was offered an all-expenses lecture tour in the US (which I did not take up!), interviewed for radio programmes in France, Italy, the US and Russia and was particularly surprised when one of our school families returned from a Christmas holiday in Italy to tell me that the Christmas Day National TV Quiz included a question about our fountain pens! Years later the story was again featured on television, this time on the BBC’s The One Show.
The most amusing incident that came out of the story was a phone call from an executive at the headquarters of Parker Pens. He told me that following the splash in the Sunday Times (and the subsequent international coverage) he’d been contacted by two of their outlets in Edinburgh to say they had run out of fountain pens! As a gesture of their gratitude for the publicity, they said they would like to give every child in Primary 6 and 7 a free fountain pen, before asking me how many we would need. When I said four hundred, they were taken aback, but after discussing the numbers with their bosses, they said they would courier 450 to us.
True to their word, a pallet of pens was delivered. However, on further inspection we found they’d sent us 450 packs of six pens, so 2700 pens each with a retail value of £9.99! I phoned the company and asked if they might have made a mistake! There was a long silence followed by an ‘Oh no!’ before I was put on hold. A senior executive came to the phone and said we should just keep them all as it would be too difficult to have them collected and brought back to their factory in the south of England. We decided to give a pen to every ESMS family and the rest were issued free to children joining Primary 6 for as long as stocks lasted!
The children at ESMS Junior School today use a combination of fountain pens and roller balls, but I am delighted to report that good handwriting continues to be a priority.