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On the Other Hand: Inside the Left-Handed Experience at BHS

Here are some things lefties deal with regularly: metal rings digging into their skin as they write in spiral-bound notebooks, ink smearing all over their hands while taking notes, and strained backs from hunching over desks with no arm support. Clearly, schools were not designed for lefties. 

“I’ve never seen a lefty desk [at Berkeley High School (BHS)],” said Schuyler Simon-Thomas, a left-handed senior at BHS. Simon-Thomas believes that “the school should completely switch to regular tables and chairs instead of the small right-handed desks.” 

Elan Zakim, a left-handed sophomore at BHS, agreed. “At first, I thought everybody just had their arm hanging off the side, but then I realized that the desks have right-sided armrests. We really don’t need the righty desks. They’re not comfortable or easy for anyone to use.” 

Lefties make up between 10 and 12 percent of the population. While it makes sense that schools are designed to benefit the majority, lefties deserve some recognition.

Historically, teachers have forced left-handed students to use their right hand only, in hopes that it would become their dominant one. For centuries, left-handedness was associated with undesirable qualities. When lefties weren’t practicing witchcraft or scheming with the Devil, they were seen as lazy and untrustworthy. These negative associations also manifest in the word “left,” which derives from the Anglo-Saxon word lyft, meaning “weak.” 

While in past centuries, left-handedness was seen as a limitation, today, in the sports world especially, being a lefty is often an advantage. “Nobody expects you to be a lefty,” said Simon-Thomas, one of three lefties on the BHS girls water polo team. Simon-Thomas’ coach guides her and the other lefties to play in different ways to catch opposing players off guard. 

Tiffany Liew, the assistant coach of the BHS girls tennis team, agreed with Simon-Thomas and explained how left-handed tennis players have an advantage. “When you throw a lefty into the equation, it takes a lot more focus. You’re playing a completely different game,” she said.  

On the other hand, left-handed people sometimes don’t receive adequate training from coaches who haven’t taught left-handed athletes before. Liew takes this issue seriously, to the point of studying YouTube videos that helped her explain to her left-handed players how to serve effectively. She believes that coaches have a responsibility to help left-handed players hone their skills. “It’s an equity thing, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s my responsibility to help people learn how to play tennis and make sure that they have as best a chance as possible to improve. … It makes sense from a competitive standpoint and also an ethical one.” 

In the classroom, lefties find the lack of comfortable desks annoying, but in the end, as Liew said, “it’s just a matter of how well you work with what you got.” Zakim, who plays the alto saxophone, has experience with adapting to the right-handed norm. He must hold the saxophone on his right side, which was challenging at first, but got easier eventually. “That’s the thing,” Zakim said, “[as a lefty,] I’m already used to improvising with my right hand.” 

Both Simon-Thomas and Zakim said that not one of their teachers has noticed that they are left-handed. In classrooms that have regular tables, it makes the most sense for a lefty to sit on the left side of those desks so as not to bump their right-handed peers. Since it’s not a teacher’s responsibility to take note of a student’s dominant hand and then shift seating charts, left-handed students have found that they must advocate for themselves. 

Liew, who isn’t left-handed but has had many friends and mentors who are, has learned “not to take [her] right hand for granted.” 

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