The pencil. Such an iconic image of the classroom. Yellow. Number 2. Orange eraser. Sharpened to a point. So simple. Yet oh so aggravating.
I was that annoying kid who loved school from PreK all the way through college, and even now in my master’s program. I always did my homework on time. I only missed school when I was legitimately sick. I wanted to learn.
My mom likes to tell the story of how I started going to Sunday School at church well before I was technically old enough. It frustrated my older brother to no end, but I followed him to the little classroom and sat obediently in the chair. It was the start of a love of school that would never end.
I remember the last day of school in third grade, I was so sick. I was running a fever. But I didn’t ask my mom to stay home. I didn’t stay in bed all day eating chicken noodle soup. I wanted to go to school. We were watching the Helen Keller movie. I couldn’t miss it. I didn’t care that it was the last day of school and grades were done and it was really just a goof-off day. I had to go see the movie about Helen Keller. I had to go to school. I cried when the nurse called my mom to take me home.
Considering how much I loved school, I never struggled to answer the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? Ballerina? No, thanks. Astronaut? Nah. Space cowgirl? Nope. I wanted to be a teacher.
It was never a question. I was going to go to college and be a teacher. And that’s just what I did.
So what does this lovely story of my childhood have to do with a yellow number 2 pencil? Everything.
Through all my years as a student dreaming of being a teacher, and the four years to get my degree to fulfill that dream, I knew that teaching is not an easy profession. It doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. It doesn’t come with a six-figure paycheck. It requires long, unpaid hours of grading and planning and generally stressing out. I knew those things and knew that I wanted to be a teacher anyway.
I never dreamed that pencils would be the straw threatening to break the camel’s back. Pencils, the simple, yet so necessary, implement of learning. That little item that students don’t have.
Back when I was still an idealistic student teacher thinking I could change the world, I made a cup that read in crappy cursive writing “Free Pencils” to keep on my desk. I imagined that the students who didn’t have pencils would be lacking in supplies out of need, not laziness. That I could be the caring teacher who gives the child a pencil. That the child would be grateful and treasure that pencil until it was sharpened down to a stick too small to be held properly. That the child would appreciate my sacrifice unendingly. That the child would grow up and tell their children about the teacher that gave them a pencil.
I was so naïve.
At this point in my career, as a grizzled third-year teacher, I’ve come to see pencils not as a representation of the potential in my students but as a symbol of the downfall of society. The downfall of education. The downfall of responsibility. A constant reminder that students today do not care about their education, let alone the cash teachers shell out buying boxes and boxes of pencils. A depiction of the futility of my efforts.
OK, yes, I’m being a tiny bit dramatic.
It’s not that bad. But it is frustrating when students walk into a test day, knowing they would be required to both read and write on this day, and they didn’t think to bring their own pencil. It is frustrating when I give the same students pencils every single day, knowing that they will lose it before the day is over and ask me again the next day to provide them with this simple supply.
But I still have that cup that says Free Pencils. It is still filled with pencils paid for with my hard-earned pennies. In fact, as I finish writing this post, my students are coming back from lunch, picking up their papers, realizing they have to write an essay, and here comes an adorable little unprepared freshman asking, “Miss, can I borrow a pencil?” Yes, dear child, borrow a pencil.
But I will also keep fighting the fight of Pencil Responsibility. I will threaten, plead, coerce, and even try to bribe students into remembering to bring their own pencils. Today’s edition was a threat that, while I cannot do anything about unreturned pencils, karma is out there and will find them. This is, of course, greeted with laughter, but at least, so far, I’ve gotten my pencils back along with the essays they were used to write.
Originally published on Mrs. Hebert’s Classroom on February 24, 2017.