I’m going to date myself pretty badly here, but remember when you were a kid in school and your pencil went dull? If you were a vain child like I was, it bothered you a lot. Suddenly, your pretty cursive (Your grand capital G! Your elegant capital S!) looked mushy. The lead on the page was faded. But you had a whole paragraph to write about tectonic plates and, other than the continents themselves, that wasn’t going anywhere.
So you would look in your pencil case to discover the rest of your options were likewise subpar. Also dull. Too short. Missing an eraser or, worse, sporting the kind of eraser that, if used, enhanced rather than erased your mistake. Yes, there was your shiny Lisa Frank pencil, but she was unsharpened and would stay that way because you were saving her.
You thought about how long it had been since you’d made a trip to the pencil sharpener. You knew your teacher, Mme. Martel, didn’t like the kids who made them too often. But it had been a few days.
So, you got up, you went to the back of the classroom. And, honey, you felt yourself relax.
Was there anything better than that little break? The child’s equivalent of a trip to the water cooler, right?
At Robert Browning Elementary, all of the pencil sharpeners were screwed into the cinder block walls they’d painted cream but used to be that milky green that reminded you of stomachaches.
All of the sharpeners also had a view out the window, which allowed me to gaze at Browning Boulevard and all of the little, pastel houses that faced the school. I would put my pencil into the sharpener, turn the handle and the most soothing experience would be the result: a grind so satisfying and a scent so pleasing it was practically meditative.
I’d immediately stop thinking about geography class (which never took much). Instead, I’d have a few seconds to consider who lived in those houses on that boulevard. Our school was part of a neighborhood where all of the streets were named after writers. My friend Bonnie Anne lived on Shakespeare. My friend Julie lived on Keats Way. Was there an unusual number of writers who lived in that neighborhood? Just on principle?
I’d look down and inspect my pencil. Three things could happen:
- I’d see that the skin of the wood hadn’t retreated on one side so, while the pencil was sharp, only a small point of lead was usable. This required a second round of more strategic sharpening.
- I would realize I had one of those faulty pencils where the lead would break out of the wooden tube in chunks and collect like ice cream sprinkles (if you were a glass-half-full type of child) or mouse droppings (if you weren’t). I knew then I was in trouble because this pencil would continue to disappoint.
- Three, my pencil would be sharp, which was always a little bit of a let-down because it meant my break was over.
Still, I’d return to my desk and, tectonic paragraph or not, feel pretty good that at least my penmanship looked clean again.
I thought of all of this earlier this year when, in a stunning pandemic move, I decided to switch from pens to pencils in my writing life. I quickly remembered how soothing the scratch of a pencil on paper is, how my handwriting (such as it is now) improves slightly, how I can fix my mistakes instead of being forced to rudely cross them out.
But, quickly, my pencils were dull. I struggled for a few days with my eyeliner sharpener, getting greasy black all over my hands, contending with the messy shavings, before, in another stunning move, I hopped on Amazon.
I was 43 years old and it, my friends, was time for an elementary school-style solution.
I chose the X-ACTO SCHOOL PRO after reading an embarrassing number of pencil sharpener reviews (by the way, if you’re looking for a great way to procrastinate on your writing, that’s one way to go).
The X-ACTO arrived a few days later and is one of my best decisions ever. Granted, it’s an electric sharpener, so it doesn’t screw into the wall and it doesn’t have a handle, but it gets the job done in a flash and you get to see the pencil shavings drop into a clear container, which is oddly satisfying.
Best of all, it takes you back. Back to the days when nothing was much more complicated than sharpening a pencil while staring out the window in the back of a classroom.