Snap Shot 03: 800 Pencils

As it turns out, teachers hate the task of sharpening pencils, not to mention the wood shavings rivaled only by ashes  spewing from an erupting volcano. It’s one of the innumerable unspoken realities elementary teachers live with in their layers of multi-multi-multi-tasking every single day, like throw up and bloody noses, teeth pulling, etc.

My husband, James, aka, “Mr. Wallace”, said his third grade class alone will go through about 800 pencils before Christmas. This year he is trying a combo of mechanical pencils in tandem with the traditional yellow wooden variety, but he still needs a Rubbermaid tub –the size of a carry-on suitcase–full of brand new yellow wooden pencils ready to roll.

As you can imagine the bane of my husband’s existence is a cheap brand of pencils that gums up the sharpener or has lead that keeps breaking off, killing time and energy and third grade focus which is only that of a fruit fly to begin with…that and all the grinding.

Mr. Wallace loves Ticonderoga brand, number 2’s. “Sharpen this,” James says, one day, handing me a shiny new Ticonderoga #2 in golden rod yellow sporting its virgin pink eraser and that unmistakable smell of fresh wood and academics. He watched with anticipation while I experienced for myself the difference between sharpening this Cadillac of writing utensils compared to one of those other horrible brands.

James was pleased to discover that a local church had provided all the student supplies for his school, Longfellow Elementary, not with a hodge-podge of cheap supplies, but with carefully tailored lists ordered by teachers to specifically meet each grade level’s needs. The church hopes to add one school each year. Last year they supplied Whittier; this year Longfellow–tangible love at its best. Of course the brought Ticonderoga #2’s.

I wanted to help with this remarkable and brightly colored gift given to the school by the pallet full. So, I stopped on by. With a newfound need to put my hands to work after being downsized from being a parent and family and live-in community with kids and housemates and a large house… to the two of us living in 900 square feet on the fifth story of the Baxter Hotel downtown sans: dog, multiple bathrooms, gardens, landscaping, and not even a walkout for potted plants, my decision wasn’t all together altruistic. I confess, my willingness to help in Mr. Wallace’s classroom (prior to children storming the premises) may have stemmed more from the idea of a fun afternoon than from a generosity of spirit.

Sharpening an oversized rubbermaid tub of about a gazillion yellow pencils seemed like an entertaining choice, which is why I was confused when Whitney, James’ team teacher blasted into the classroom on a quick errand to clarify details, looking amazingly calm-but-stressed. Whitney stopped mid-stride and said, “You’re a good woman, Donna.”

I shrugged and smiled while lugging the Rubbermaid over to the shelf with “the sharpener”. James has a high-powered expensive sharpener and I was pretty excited to try it. I love power tools. And, this is one of those that schoolteachers simply cannot afford to be cheap about. As you may well know, pencil sharpeners tend to chew up, jam up, burn up and crap out so Mr. Wallace is protective of who gets to use his good one. I felt honored to be entrusted with the task.

As it turns out, there’s an art form to sharpening a pencil.

The secret is exerting just the right amount of pressure. “See?” Mr. Wallace says, pressing in for “one hippopotamus,” giving the pencil a quick twist. “Done.” In one smooth motion, he’d blown the dust off the beautiful, perfect point, laid it down and had another one whirring in the machine.

I no doubt needed some practice to get a pin-sharp tip. My first couple pencils weren’t so pretty, their points were nubbed and off center. I was a bit timid of the purring machine. My twist was ill-timed; the pressure all wrong.

Soon I found my stride; I was owning this task like a boss. I’m not at all sure that children should be allowed to be in possession of these sharp objects…especially when the pencils are so pretty, all lined and piled up just so.

After about 50 pencils, I couldn’t uncurl my fingers, and my neck was cramping up. I needed a break… and a snack. I made the administrative decision to let the sharpener cool off and went to find some trail mix or dried fruit in Mr. Wallace’s back cupboard. A pass by a mirror revealed that I had bits of sawdust in my hair and a smear of pencil lead on my cheek. I was fully in.

I had barely made a dent. After my nutritious refueling, I did some finger and neck stretches and set back to work. Investing a good amount of muscle and minutes and procuring what must have been several hundred more writing utensils, my thumb and forefinger started turning black from the metal piece that holds the soft rubber eraser at the end. “I’m getting a blister, pretty sure,” I whined aloud, while secretly wearing my wound like a badge. I now had skin in the game. I was pleased with the visible, measurable, instant results of my growing pile of miniature spears ground to dangerously sharp points…a luxury we writers rarely get to indulge—sharp points, or instant results.

When Mr. Wallace and I finally called it a day at 4:30 pm, we were just about to walk out the front exit doors, leaving behind the uncharacteristic hush and fresh smell of paint and new floor wax, when veteran fourth grade teacher, Debbie, came around the corner and asked what we’d been up to. Well, she knew what James had been up to, so she redirected her question to me. She loves to read and I’m a writer, so she always asks about my projects.

“Sharpening pencils,” I said without a trace of sarcasm, gently rubbing my blackened and blistered thumb.

Her eyes widened and she glanced up at James standing behind me before redirecting her question back to me, “And you have how many degrees?”

I realized for the first time that maybe even though my husband is beginning his 19th year, the other teachers in the building may not have noticed that I have been too engrossed in my own kids, career, and studies to help with the simple tasks that other teacher-spouses and children do annually: passing out the multi-colored books, and crayons and scissors and pencil boxes and folders, glue sticks… in fact, Daughter Cierra  was her dad’s annual helper for years. But this year I was granted a turn.

“Dr. Wallace sharpened pencils today,” I said referring to myself in third person while grinning big, knowing without a doubt that helping with mundane, simple tasks is all I’m qualified to do in this remarkable setting. Yes, even though my sister and I played school as little girls, and dreamed of growing up to be mommies and teachers.

Debbie shook her head and laughed. She asked if there wasn’t a better use of my time. But my being here wasn’t so much about the use of my specialized skills as it was about stepping into my husband’s world and recognizing the monstrosity of the task at hand. While I was doing the fun stuff, he was troubleshooting technology, planning IEP’s, figuring out scoring methods…. The scope and pace and complexity of what goes on here blows my mind. I had no idea there were so many pencils… and this is just pencils.