Sharpening Pencils

HistoricalBuildingsThis post should be especially interesting to Republicans because I am going to reflect on some school day memories.  School.  That big brick building in the neighborhood that once upon a time was a place where kids went to learn stuff.  I’m not sure Republicans are familiar with the place — or the concept — either then or now.  I do recall seeing some people who are today known Republicans scurrying about my school, however, including Tim Pawlenty.  So, yes, he was there, he attended one, although it is difficult to make the argument that he retained much from the experience.  It is a shame that we should care, but we should.

Anyway, I don’t care, not now.  All I want to do is write about pencils.  That’s all I want to do.

Do kids still use pencils, by the way?  I recall how important pencils were back in the day.  It wasn’t until we got into the higher grades — you know, fourth or fifth grade — that kids dared dream of Bic pens so pencils pretty much carried the day.  Pencils and erasers.  I always had an assortment of both.  Every self-respecting kid did.  But I am wired funny and I really liked my pencils, I mean really liked my pencils.  Pencils!  In truth it has been worse than that.  I have always been a paper and pencil geek, a hoarder of office and school supplies.  The school storeroom was a place of sanctity for me.  A marvelous cache of treasures.  That and pencils.

So I liked my pencils.  Let’s move on.

Back in the day we collected them and showed them, like some people show cars or dogs.  Most pencils were yellow with black lead, but occasionally different colors appeared.  The barrel or “shell” of the pencil — the wooden part- — might be colored white or black, which was my favorite.  Red painted shells  had red lead and blue ones had blue.  (Yes, blue…isn’t that amazing?)  And we had enough varieties of graphite hardness (the “lead” I’ve been talking about) to require special instructions for tests.  “Make sure you have two #2 pencils ready for your exam tomorrow.”

Old pencils purloined from relatives even older than mom and dad were super special.  I had one that had a metal cap designed to protect the pencil’s point, a short stubby thing meant to fit in a shirt pocket with a small notepad.   It was stamped with “Wood Brothers” on the cap, my grandfather’s business.  (I wonder what I did with that. I must still have it here somewhere.)  And once I brought in a carpenter’s pencil that I found in my dad’s pocket (he always had extras) and was disappointed to find out that no one thought it special and it didn’t fit into the sharpener.

It is that sharpener that I want to talk about though.  You see, a pencil was something like a token of freedom in our school.  Unlike requesting permission to use the bathroom (called a “lavatory” in my polite schooldays), you could get up any time to sharpen your pencil.  In fact two sounds stand out more than others when I think back to school, they are banging old heating radiators and grinding pencil sharpeners.

I am buying a box tomorrow.

I am buying a box tomorrow.

A lot of kids intentionally broke the point on their pencils to earn an excuse to walk up to the wall-mounted sharpener.  I learned that it wasn’t necessary to break the point, even a sharp pencil could grind in the sharpener.  And like a yawn spreading from person to person, when one classmate got up to sharpen a pencil — or two or three pencils if he were flush — others would certainly follow.  One could not miss the pattern.  In fact, quite quickly we would all catch on.  Knowing that the teacher didn’t like groups congregating at the pencil sharpener (two or more constituted a group) we would keep watch for a vacant path to the pencil sharpener to claim.  Often two or three of us would rise from our seats simultaneously, leaving the perceived laggards to concede to the quick.

This always set Miss Gee’s eye’s rolling, which was half the fun and part of the challenge because every so often we would push things too far — mayhem threatened — and Miss Gee would announce:  “All right, everyone up and to the sharpener!”  Or something like that.  And we would dejectedly and obediently line up — all 12 of us — and each silently take our turn at the pencil sharpener and then solemnly walk back to our desks knowing that for that hour at least, the freedom bestowed by the pencil had been forfeited.  Life was so unfair.  Only real tragedy — two broken leads — could justify a timid approach to the pencil sharpener now!  A kid would have a better chance asking permission for the lavatory.

That’s ok.  If we were quietly wearing down pencils in Miss Gee’s class we were likely learning the cursive capital Q or something like that, and now I wish I had paid more attention to my worksheet than the sharpener anyway.  (My cursive is horrible.)  Lessons matter, I understand that, even lessons learned indirectly about discipline and manners enforced by a Miss Gee.

I can’t remember for certain, but I think I learned a lot back then.

Anyway, I have my very own pencil sharpener now.  It is much like the one we had in school and the special one I got as a gift one Christmas.  I still get a lot of joy from sharpening a pencil, but now nearly all of it is comes from the memories it keeps fresh.


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