Education Humor Memoir

In Praise of the Pencil

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In 5th grade, Mr. Zych lectured all of his students about how to properly sharpen a pencil. He wasn’t messing around. His speech was not short, and he covered everything from how to properly grip the pencil to the cranking motion – how it should be smooth and continuous, not jerky. He even discussed the perils of over-sharpening, which could lead to premature tip-breakage. Mr. Zych turned pencil sharpening into a science.

Personally, I have had a love-hate relationship with pencils. I first learned how to print my alphabet in pencil and then I learned how to write in cursive in pencil. That was Paradise. Finally, a way to write all the stories stored in my head. Later, I preferred to write with pens – preferably ones filled with purple or green ink. But ever since my son started school, he has been forever in need of pencils; they seem to always be around, and so I returned to the yellow pencils of my youth. I had learned to appreciate the feel of a pencil in my hand again. I even started to like the scratchy-scratchy sound of the graphite as it dragged across the page. After I recently stepped on a pencil, I became suspicious of them again and switched back to pens.

Meanwhile, my son is still on a steady diet of pencils. In middle school, the kids seem to devour them: literally and figuratively. I know my son nibbles on his; I’ve seen the teeth marks. I’ve watched him crunch while he contemplates before committing to writing an answer on paper. But sometimes I wonder if he actually eats them, too. I mean, where do they go? How many pencils does one kid need in a school year?

A few weeks back, Monkey came home in a tizzy.

“I’m out of pencils again,” he announced.

Nonplussed, I told him there were under three weeks of school left and that I was pretty sure he could make-do with his nubs until June 20.

He started at me with contempt.

“Are you serious?” he questioned. “I have exams! I need pencils! Ticonderogas. Now!”

He was not messing around.

The next day while in the grocery store – to my horror – I found plenty of office supplies, but they were only generic pencils. And even I know that those erasers don’t do the job. You need another eraser to get rid of the smears those lame pencils leave behind.

So I made an extra trek, this time to Staples – home of the Ticonderoga pencil – and invested in the Bulk pack. (Because that was all they had.) Let’s be clear. Ticonderoga pencils are like platinum. They cost a fortune. The only way a pencil could be more fabulous would be if you printed your name on pencils. A Ticonderoga is the Hum-V in the wonderful world of pencils. Teachers definitely prefer them. Definitely.

I rationalized that I could spend $15.77 + nearly 9% tax on pencils because they are non-perishable, so it is not like they will ever rot or mold. And I figured whatever is left at the end of the school year, Monkey can use in 7th grade, thus saving me some back-to-school shopping hassle.

A few days later, a good friend of mine called me and reported that her son – also a 6th grader – had run out of pencils. While requesting to buy more, she said my name was invoked. Apparently her son said:

“Can you just be like Mrs. J. and get the Giant Pack of 72 Ticonderoga pencils?”

Apparently Monkey had been bragging about his new stash.

I laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it. Bragging about pencils?

And then I thought about how I had come full circle. Just one week before, I was cursing pencils as my husband dug around my heel with a needle in an attempt to get the lead out. (I know, I know. Pencils are made of graphite. I was going for the funny.) But now I found myself saying a silent prayer on behalf of all pencil-loving children everywhere. Uncharacteristically, I clasped my hands together and thought to myself:

Lord, may this be the worst thing my child ever desires. May this be his worst addiction. May he never see cocaine. May he never use LSD or heroin. May he avoid cigarettes and alcohol. May he avoid the ‘shrooms, the X, the meth. May he never huff. May he find the strength to avoid the Oxycontin and Adderall.

May he always be addicted to Ticonderoga pencils.

Because, honestly, I’ll happily help Monkey score his Ticonderoga pencils forever. I’ll even help him sharpen them. Mr. Zych schooled me on that a long time ago, and I feel confident I can help my son with his #2 pencil fix without any need for an Intervention.

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65 thoughts on “In Praise of the Pencil

  1. I can just see him at school looking left and right before pulling out the stash of pencils with all the labels and numbers filed off. Other kids just gasp.

  2. Okay, as a math nerd, new pencils were seriously like crack, if I were to ever try crack and become addicted and randomly buy a pack of crack every single time I’m in Target.

    Who am I kidding. As a nerd, period, school supplies in general made me feel like a brand new girl. I didn’t discriminate.

    And we all wanna be like Mrs. J.

    1. Jess, I totally thought this said, “As a METH nerd…”; What is wrong with me? Of course you would love all office supplies. Doesn’t everyone? I bet if we polled most bloggers, 97.2% would report having an irrational love for Staples/OfficeMax/Target. Betcha anything. 😉

  3. “Hey big spender” <– That's all I can think of.

    I guess I'm the same way Monkey is, except with pens. At work I have to have PILOT BETTER Retractable's in FINE ink. Anything else just will not do. I don't care if they cost us $20/box. It's what I want damnit!

    1. As I said to Jessica Buttram (above), I’ll bet that most bloggers have an irrational love for office supplies. We are all closet geeks, aren’t we? And let’s face it, most of us are pretty out of the closet. I know mine is totally see through. 😉

  4. “Are you serious?” he questioned. “I have exams! I need pencils! Ticonderogas. Now!”

    Gee, I wonder where he gets that from? 😉

  5. Supply for 7th grade next term? Hahahaha. Are you in for surprise. In 7th grade we have science. We will draw parts of animals and single celled things and plants and planets. In arithmetic (well I’m coming up on 62 and the term worked just fine for us for the numbers trip for my generation which also learned Greek and Latin roots as we trudged uphill in the snow) they make numbers with letters instead and make charts and graphs. These will require COLORED PENCILS. The kids that don’t have them will steal your kid’s pencils and you will go to the store twice a week for COLORED PENCILS. They cost 3 times what regulars do.

    1. I think “colored pencils” is racist, Carl. I think we call them “rainbow-colored pencils” now. 😉 Never fear, I have been saving all of Monkey’s unused (but required) pencils for years. We have hundreds. I am good to go there. It would be nice to actually have a reason to use them.

  6. I love pencils, brand new, right out of the box, sharpened just so…

    On my first day on the job as a music teacher, there was a principal-drawn picture, directly above the crank sharpener in my classroom, showing exactly how a newly sharpened pencil looks. When I moved into my new music room several years later, I took that picture with me, even though I (and most others) had graduated to an electric sharpener. Packing up when I retired, I tucked that picture away in a box of treasures too valuable to toss or leave behind. It spoke to me of a different era in education, long before computers in every classroom, long before commercially made posters, long before erasable pens. If I could hold onto only one thing from my teaching years, it would be that laminated, dog-eared picture, demonstrating when one had sharpened a pencil to perfection.

  7. That is a seriously funny metaphor. I can see some little sixth grader looking at some kid with some “generic” pencil. “What’s that crap? Here, try this pencil. Ya, this is the good stuff. This one’s for free.” “Oh, you like it that much? Well, I may know someone who knows someone.” LOL

    1. Cal feels bad for the kids with Paper Mate pencils. He’s all: “That kid’s parents must not love him very much.” If he were a different kid – a little ALex P. Keaton – he would bring the 72-pack to school and sell each one for $1.

      That would be awesome.

      Hubby and I could totally retire on that kind of scheme. 😉

  8. Renee, now I know why it bothers me so much that my 10th grade daughter insists on using mechanical pencils. Mr. Zych was one of my favorite teachers and that lecture must have be presented in my class, too. (I can envision him saying those things, based on your description.) Besides the fact that mechanical pencils are more expensive and the lead breaks constantly, there’s nothing to match a perfectly sharpened “#2”!

    1. I totally hate mechanical pencils. They are evil. The stupid mechanism is forever breaking, the graphite is uber expensive and ridiculously fragile. But I know a guy who knows a guy who can get your daughter some sweet Ticonderogas. Seriously. She should try ’em. She’ll be hooked. 😉

  9. My most favorite sound in the world is the pencil moving across the page! If you, or Staples ever run out of Ticonderogas, you’ve got a source in me!

  10. I am just loving this post.

    Nearly everyone at my workplace complains about the pencils. The school will provide pencils for kids who don’t have them – what classroom doesn’t?! But – they get them in bulk and the pencils are poor quality. Sharpen them a little or a lot, the lead always breaks up inside the pencil and falls out. Or, the lead is j u s t slightly off-center, leaving a sliver of wood to cling to the lead and give that nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling whenever you try to write.

    I did suggest, strongly, that the district just give it up already and purchase Ticonderogas – because they sharpen and the leads are centered. Plus, you can get a package of “Breast Cancer Ribbon” pencils in pink and white, or the cool silver pencils with the black wood underneath, near the lead.

    I like the novelty pencils – for holidays, etc. – but often, they are chintzy things that leave behind a wad of decorative plastic wrap in the sharpener. Pencils aren’t all wooden anymore with the novelty painted or imprinted – the decoration is on this plastic piece that gets shrink-wrapped around the pencil or something, and then of course, it won’t sharpen properly because the shrink-wrap starts to come off.

    Novelty pencils and generics used to be SOOOOOOO much better. If parents are quailing over purchasing Ticonderogas, they might try finding them at a dollar store. Sometimes, a dollar store will have some name-brand things, but you have to watch when the new stock comes in.

    I know – I spend too much time contemplating the quality of pencils, though I haven’t whittled down the sharpening of them to a science (yet). I will admit that I am someone who will sharpen every pencil in the house just to have a sharp one to write with. I loathe writing or drawing with a dull lead. I have gone so far as to tape “MOM” on MY pencils so they come back to me. It’s the kiss of death for a kid to be seen writing with a pencil that has “MOM” on it.

    Laughing like crazy over Monkey’s stash of Ticonderogas – isn’t it great that you are setting the mark for parents everywhere, when it comes to school supplies?

    1. Wendy, if I ever find out that they sell Ticonderoga pencils at The Dollar STore, I swear to you, I will buy out all of the stock. I love that you label your pencils “MOM” and that you are forever sharpening; you and Monkey would get along really well. That boy is going to kill the motor on my electric sharpener. Seriously. They. Cannot. Be. Sharp. Enough. 😉

  11. #1: “Mr. Zych turned pencil sharpening into a science.” No, he turned it into soft-core porn. Go reread that paragraph with your Chase-brain engaged. I need a shower.

    #2: Middle schoolers are prewired to go through a mininum of 200 pencils each calendar year. Not that they’re writing that much. Pencils just vanish.

    #3: Ever think you’d be the mom that makes the other moms jealous because of the pencils you buy? You’re a MILS (Mom I’d Like to Sharpen).

    1. Okay Faddy McPorn:

      It does sound totally nasty. Is it my writing that just does that? (Is that why I got voted “Class Flirt” in 1985? Or is it just that your brain receives it like that? Honestly, I did not intend to make Mr. Zych’s lesson on “How To Sharpen a Pencil” sound dirty. But it totally does. Maybe he gave that annual lesson because it amused him. All those gorgeous double entendres went right over our 5th grade heads. I can’t believe that only upon re-reading it now that I an see the cloaked naughtiness of it all. 😉

      Clearly, I need a good sharpening.

    2. “…it should be smooth and continuous, not jerky… which could lead to premature tip-breakage.”

      Yep. I apparently have Chase-brain, too.

      And now? All I want in life is to be a MILS.

      (A girl can dream, can’t she?)

  12. A parent turned me on to your blog about The Giver and I am hooked. I teach 7th grade Language Arts in the Midwest and we have one more day. It was locker cleanout and I fished several pens and pencils out of the trash this afternoon – all wrapped in a rubber band. Yikes! Affluence sucks!

    1. Hi Clay! Congratulations on making it one more year! And welcome to my blog.

      I know teachers see a lot of waste, but parents are asked to buy a lot of stuff at the beginning of the year which we later learn is superfluous. My son came home today with an empty Composition notebook, an entire box of eraser tops, and red and green dry erase markers. (The black ones were taken by the teachers.) Now I get to store all that stuff for the summer and pray that something can be re-purposed for next year.

      As far as locker clean-out goes, all I can say about the bundle you fished out of the garbage… well, if the pencils weren’t Ticonderogas… I might have pitched them, too. 😉

      I wrote a piece a while back about how I saw kids throwing their change away in the garbage cans at the mall. So I’m with you; our kids don’t have an appreciation for money the way we did when we were young. They are the “gift card” generation. Many teens don’t know what to do with pennies or nickels and would rather leave them in the store or throw them away than have their pockets weighted down by “such heavy coins.”

      I guess I’m kind of glad that Monkey is a collector of money as well as Ticonderoga pencils. 😉

  13. I miss sharpening pencils. Sharpening pencils was the water cooler of the elementary school world. You always had an excuse to get up from your desk and go chat with a friend or the girl you liked when you saw them get up to sharpen a pencil.

  14. I love this! When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I CRAVED the smell of pencil shavings. I loved it soooo much that I took the chore of “Empty Pencil Sharpener” off of my student helper list that year and made it my job. I was pretty easy to spot back then with my giant belly and a graphite smudge on my nose! Oddly, my second daughter has never taken a liking to pens. She’s 20 years old and unless she’s writing a check or signing a receipt she uses a pencil!

    Sounds like Monkey is the king of the Ticonderogas! 🙂

    1. That cannot be true! You didn’t eat them or anything, right? You just wanted to sniff ’em.

      “I love the smell of fresh pencil shavings early in the morning.”

      I think I heard that in a movie or something. 😉

      1. It’s honestly true. I also craved the smell of my vacuum cleaner while it was running–I vacuumed the house everyday!

        Nope, I didn’t eat them! 🙂 I just gave them a good sniff before I dumped them in the trash. I know how weird this sounds, but my OBGYN told me that it wasn’t that abnormal to have a craving for certain smells. 🙂

  15. Just this weekend we set up an office for my little sister to work away from home and office. The 12 year old niece supplied… beautifully sharpened pencils (cheap ass no name #2s) and several pens for the poor Auntie lacking in supplies. Nothing says love like a well sharpened pencil. (even if it is a cheap ass no name #2). She’ll be screaming for a Ticonderoga within a week.

    I love reading your blog.

    1. Heather:
      Cheap-o pencils have their place in the world. In fact, they make lovely handouts on Halloween. I know our neighborhood children love when we hand out pencils. That’s why we get so much pretty toilet paper on our trees the next day. It’s like a fancy “Thanks for the awesome pencils, RASJ.” Kids. Gotta love ’em. Or strangle them. Either way. 😉

      1. I had the opportunity to utilize a pencil today. I looked for the brand and type. Partly because of the blog but I also thought wow this pencil isn’t as bad as some! It says


        Not only is this a super cheap pencil it is about 15 years old!! Pennellville Elementary closed in 1995 and became an alternative school (also slated to be closed) before my youngest got to attend there.

        Maybe there is an aging process involved in the expensive ones. he he.

  16. I loved pencils and I loved sharpening pencils. The classrooms usually had a mechanical pencil sharpener bolted to the wall, and I knew where the good pencil sharpeners were. It’s funny how some pencil sharpeners work well, and some just rough up the pencil a bit and steal some lead. Every pencil sharpener had its own personality.

  17. My mom used to say stuff like that all the time when I’d try to talk out of the house with a headband on looking like an idiot.

    but i didn’t look like an idiot, no, it twas a facade, I was popping bottles in the club like a lizard, getting drinks do it right getting skizzard, like a G6.

    (end is moderately exaggerated)

  18. I’m using a Ticonderoga as we speak! Well, okay, not literally as we speak, but when I’m not typing, I’m doing some writing with a pencil and it really is a Ticonderoga.

    My first grade teacher hated short pencils and whenever she saw me writing with one (my mother was much stingier than you when it came to school supplies), she’d yank it out of my hand and give me a fresh pencil. I started gathering all the old pencils in the house and using them at school just so I could get new ones!

    Sharpening a pencil is indeed like softcore porn to geeks like us! 🙂

    My mother learned to not worry whenever I wandered away from her in a grocery or department store; I was ALWAYS in the school/office supply aisle. Even now, the three stores that are most dangerous of getting gobs of money out of me are Staples, DSW and a good used book store.

  19. While my girlfriends would look forward to buying back-to-school wardrobes, I used to love going shopping for school supplies.

    Fresh Pee Chee folders, new pencils, erasers that were still pink.

    I also loved covering my textbooks with paper bags. Ah, the folding and the proper placement of tape to achieve JUST the right fit.

    Now that I’m tying it, I realize it sounds “potentially” nerdy.

    But perhaps it will help me score as an MILS.

  20. I was at a tank museum while camping at the weekend. Took more than 20 children. Military style organization got us through it. During our visit we paused at some tables laid out for drawing and colouring – paper, pencils, pens and crayons. There was a graphic artist displaying his skills just beside me, but I was the big draw for little boys and girls alike. Not for the pictures I could make, but give me a paper cup, a pencil and some sellotape (Scotch tape) and I can churn out tanks, helicopters, anti-tank barriers, tents and other creations. And if anyone is wondering where the lids to all the glue sticks went – I needed them to make tanks wheels to go inside the caterpillar tracks.
    (C’mon! The glue had all dried up anyway.)

    They may be missing a few pencils too.

  21. Okay so I planned a very productive morning of networking, writing, and editing. I promised myself I would not get distracted today… and then I popped on over here and found this post. Now I’ve been researching the history of pencils for the past thirty minutes. Did you know the eraser was added 1858?

    1. I actually did. I got all wrapped up in the research before I pared down the piece and decided to leave that piece of trivia out. By the way, that is probably the biggest compliment I have ever received. I wrote someone to distraction. 😉 Will you write that on the back of my manuscript one day? 😉

  22. Yesterday before school my 4th grader said, “Do we have any new pencils?” I asked why. She said that she was running low on pencils at school! I had just read this blog the day before. I swear it was like I had been set up. So, like you, I said that there were only a few weeks of school left, and surely she could get by with what she has. She doesn’t have any exams to write. In fact, the next few weeks are filled with Field Day, two field trips, and an end of year celebration. Still, she needed more pencils. Luckily, every summer when Staples has their weekly school supply sales, I go in each week and stock up on whatever they are selling for a penny or free. So, I just went to my stash and pulled out a brand new package of pencils – Staples brand, not Ticonderogas. I’m not made of money! Actually, I never knew there was a difference! I’m not that much of a nerd! Actually, I’m just a different kind of nerd; the math & computer kind!

  23. Good God, Renée…I must make sure my kids don’t see this post…otherwise I’ll have to stop buying them the crap pencils at the Dollar Store…they’ve already vetoed the geometry sets from there!

    I totally agree about our love of office supplies…if I didn’t have a bookstore, I would definitely want a stationery store!


  24. I can certainly appreciate the lure of a well-sharpened example of the Cadillac of pencils, but I must say that remembering the subtle crunch of wood and paint against my molars – a sensation I’m not even sure how I experienced in the first place – sends shivers down my back. Chewing on pencils? It’s as bad as fingernails on a blackboard for me.

  25. Ticonderogas are in a class all their own. I love the line in You’ve Got Mail “I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” Imagine a bouquet of freshly sharpened Ticonderogas. Now that’s love.

  26. I had Mr. Zych, too, in 5th grade, and that was probaby my favorite grade of all time. Now, in the workplace, I’m the only one I know who still prefers writing with an old fashioned pencil and I love sharpening them. But until I read this blog……….I had no idea why.

  27. I had Mr. Zych too and just wanted to add to this pencil conversation that my son went through a phase of snapping pencils in half. I came to the same conclusion as you in that I preferred to find broken pencils around the house
    to bottles of all those things you listed in your blog. At 24, he now has a much friendlier relationship with his pencils.

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