LSS: Pencil-thin character

Students and teachers across Louisiana have endured a grueling week of standardized testing.

There’s a certain calm with testing itself, but the pressure associated with the tests and administering the tests wears everyone’s nerves raw.

There is much that has been and could be written about standardized testing. In fact, I could go on for a while myself, but of all there is to say or write about standardized testing, none of it will be said or written here.

As close as I’ll come to standardized testing is the lowly item so closely associated to testing.

The no. 2 pencil.

You know, the yellow ones?

With the orange erasers?

And the green banding where the pencil meets the tiny metal bit holding the eraser in place?

They look like the pencils of yesteryear.

But let me assure you, for the most part, these lookalikes do not write like the pencils of the past.

Pencils used to last.

I can’t say for certain how long my grandfather used a single pencil, but I believe he held on to the same knife-sharpened yellow stick for a year or so. Every farmer’s overalls had a special pocket just for a pencil.

There were no industrial-sized boxes of 48 to be had. Certainly, students, even in my grandfather’s day, lost a pencil on occasion. They also forget them or left them at home, but when pencil push came to pencil shove, the lowly writing instrument had value.

Based on having spent the better part of the last eight months in a sixth grade classroom, let me tell you that times have changed. Whoever makes the bulk of today’s pencils does not make them like they used to. Surely, there have to be some super-duper pencils out there that still work right, but I’m not sure I know or teach anyone who has found this present-day leaden writing treasure.

Many students don’t even know how to operate the round-and-round-and-round-bolted-to-the-wall contraption formerly used to sharpen pencils. However, they’re chomping at the bits to grind pencils to the nub in an electric grater.

All I can tell you is that pencils of the present and pencils of the past are poles apart.

Rarely, rarely, rarely does a contemporary pencil lead simply wear down. Nope, these pencils have full-scale and absolute pencil blowouts repeatedly — the kind reserved for near-catastrophic pencil and paper situations in days of yore.

After a week in a room full of 12-year-olds who each needed two no. 2 pencils steadily sharpened, I speak with some authority.

So, I’ll get to the point.

Maybe we live in an age of such perceived bounty that the producers and consumers of the lowly pencil see it as nothing more than a twig to be used for the moment, then broken and discarded. Yet, I believe there’s something worthy when pencils — and other items of utility – are constructed well enough to last long enough to develop some character.

Life is about more than one new pencil after another.

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