Pencil Marks

The top of the desk is a collection of, well, stuff. Things that caught an eye, tools, mementos, reminders. Prominent among the stuff are the pencil sharpeners, not your usual twist-the-pencil-against-a-blade-mounted-in-a-toy-train sharpener, but honest, industrial, bolt-em-to-the-wall-and-turn-the-crank pencil sharpeners. My sister gave me the first one, the "Dexter No. 2", circa 1910. It sat on the top of the desk, periodically catching my eye, sending me in search of its siblings and future generations on eBay and the collection grew. I love those old pencil sharpeners. They have heft, a singular purpose, a utility appreciated by all and they achieve their point with marvelous efficiency. Such a rare thing, the simple, purpose-built machine, tireless in pursuit of its goal, engineered for endurance, so well designed and easily used that no direction is needed. It sits, mounted firmly on wall or desk, sticking out, though not ostentatiously, saying 'Here I am. Use me.'

At Lamar Elementary the first bold soul to rise and approach the pencil sharpener, new Ticonderoga or Oriole or Velvet held high to announce their intention, would often start a procession of students suddenly aware of the need for immediate maintenance on their primary tool. A dull pencil is functional, but a sharp pencil has a point, an edge, to write crisp answers and draw clean lines. The smell of wood and graphite shavings, chalk dust, layers of institutional floor wax all combine to form the incense of a fresh start and students returned to their seats, recharged from the brief respite, better equipped for the next challenge. And just like that, a common task becomes ritual, necessary maintenance becomes larger than its practical purpose. The sharpener says, 'Wake up and smell the pencil shavings. You are equipped for the task at hand.'

Time does what it does and the new becomes a nub, harder to hold, inconvenient, inefficient. The nub is worse than the dull and so, at times, we avoid the sharpener, conserving efficiency, preserving convenience, stretching the resource. In college there were no pencil sharpeners and no one would disrupt a class for the sake of a wooden pencil anyway. Stuck with a yellow number two, no sharpener in sight, I often resorted to angling it close to page, grinding the lead against the paper while rotating the barrel to produce a fine, though unevenly tapered and weak, point. Or the pen, there was always the pen and a wide variety of them, too. Felt, ball point, roller ball and the timeless, tempting fountain were all available and attractive alternatives. Who needs a sharpener? Why we haven't even mentioned mechanical pencils, with their built in storage for extra lead AND erasers. The sharpener, ignored and invisible, sits quietly and says, 'I'll be here when you need me.'

We graduate, from jumbo pencils and Big Chief tablets, to Bics and loose leaf pages, to whatever-pen-you-want and spiral notebooks and finally, ultimately(?), to bytes in memory and messages in the ether. There truly is no need for pencils or sharpeners. You can even draw with a Bamboo Pen that has neither bamboo or ink; its versatility limit is in the user. You can become an expert on the "Dexter No. 2" without lifting a pencil, its origins, successes, competitors and demise are surely documented somewhere, and likely just a thoughtful search phrase away. The handwritten note, the quick scratching of arithmetic with its take-aways and carries and guzintas, the completely-unrelated-to-any-scale map drawn on a scrap, the phone number on a matchbook ... all these are unnecessary, anachronistic, a certain indicator of the unsophisticated. The sharpener, now few and far between, patiently waits saying, 'Trust me, I still work.'

On my desk, among the clutter, sits the pencil sharpener I use. It's electric, from China and of unknown
brand or lineage. It does a fine job, though I suspect that, unlike the "Dexter No. 2", it will not be operational 100 years from now. I use wooden pencils, a Pink Pearl or Black Pearl eraser and entirely too many scraps of paper and scattered notebooks, not because they are efficient or to solidify my curmudgeon bonafides or as a tacit endorsement of hipsterism, I just like them. I like the renewal after sharpening, writing tactilely, managing my personal hieroglyphics. Pencil and paper allows an easy transition from note taking to doodling, unrestricted, with no dependence on installed fonts or keyboard knowledge. Pencils and sharpeners are comforting, dependable, timeless and too easily overlooked. I would encourage you to sharpen a pencil today, and appreciate the marvel.

Finally, please recognize that you, like the pencil, are a simple, purpose built machine. You may think that your purpose is biological or economical or political, and you may very well achieve those things. For something higher, you'll need a good sharpener.