August 13, 2003


With all my recent computer woes, I began to think more and more highly of the GORP... the Good Old Reliable Pencil. Alas, the pencil lacks the DELETE key; but it does have one redeeming asset:

...writers erased the first unwanted pencil marks with a ball of moist bread. Nearly 200 years later, in 1752, the French Academy of Sciences concluded that caoutchouc (condensed latex), obtained from the rubber tree, could be used to remove the marks. The first scientific description of caoutchouc had surfaced during a French geographic expedition to South Africa in 1735. In 1770, British-American chemist Joseph Priestly coined the word "rubber" to describe the product, since it was used to rub out pencil marks, the newsmagazine says.

My earliest pencil memories are of the cigar-sized, heavy, soft-leaded variety issued in the early grades. The rounded lead made marks a quarter inch wide on wide-ruled, low rag, gray-brown paper. There were no erasers on these impossibly thick but unbreakable pencils. (How did they expect us to learn to hold a pencil of this sort that could only be clutched in a tiny fist!) The erasers were separate, issued out of a big box and assigned to the upper right corner of our tiny desk. They were of the square crumbly tan variety, and when our bold mistakes were erased, more often than not, it made great conspicuous black graphite smears across the page, accentuating our failures and causing permanent setbacks in penmenship pride. I remember how the erasers smelled. And how the end of the pencil tasted; for some reason, one could not resist chewing the end of the pencil. Some of my friends nibbled the erasers as well, come to think about it. I guess they probably use PDA's in first grade now, and don't get to experience the physical joys of erasure. Pity.

Posted by fred1st at August 13, 2003 07:11 AM | TrackBack

Ah, the smell of a newly-opened Big Chief tablet!

Posted by: Cop Car at August 13, 2003 07:45 AM

In my primary school in Madrid, Spain, they gave us pencils to TRACE a beautiful italic writing by Arthur Faircliffe. No erasers. They were Spanish no. 2 pencils. I can still smell them too.

Off to surgery for my achilles in about 2 hours so I'll just say welcome back (we missed you) and I'll next be reading you through a Vicodin haze!

Posted by: Pica at August 13, 2003 08:56 AM

For a second there, I would swear I could smell a fresh mimeograph in my office!

I'm still a pencil guy - cheap mechanicals with a .7 lead. I only use pencil to sign documents - all my day to day writing, note taking in meetings etc is in pencil.

Posted by: Chris at August 13, 2003 09:18 AM

Ah yes, that fresh, woody-painty smell of those fat, eraserless pencils! Who could resist gnawing them? Nobody died of lead poisoning, far as I know--and I bet they WERE lead, too, back in the 50s. The erasers were oblong, pink, slanty at the ends (trapezoids? rhomboids?), Pink Pearl brand, no good for chewing, but you could color in the logo when you got bored. The paper was faintly bluish-grey-beige, so coarse it had splinters. Turquoise solid lines with dotted lines in between, to get your lower-case and capitals the right size. You tried hard because you knew--every child, no matter how tiny, first grade, even--everybody knew that we were in the best school system (California's) in the country, and it was FREE. Boy are THOSE days gone forever!

Posted by: Rhonda at August 13, 2003 12:38 PM

What I remember best is the smell of the pencil sharpener. Oh the joy of being asked to empty it into the grey metal can. Oh the agony of graphite fingerprints on my clothes.

Posted by: punctilious at August 13, 2003 02:08 PM

Rhonda--I'm happy to hear that you who were in school in California knew what we were told: The California system was at the leading edge of education. Your system was held up as paradise to those of us who were in the 6th grade at Blenheim Elementary in Kansas City Mo in the early 1950s (our claim to fame was that our school principal had a son who was a movie star--Craig Stevens). We just knew that everyone in California must be rich to have such a tremendous educational system.

Posted by: Cop Car at August 13, 2003 07:04 PM

Kids don't need erasers anymore...there are no wrong answers. *G*

Cop Car...I attended Calif. schools in the 50's and 60's. They were as good as you were told. We had so many resources and extra-cirricular activites. Thestandards were easy passes. A English pass was required to advance grades, a mandated 11th grade math pass and social studies/civics required every year 5-12.

When I graduated from High School only about 30% of my class went to college. A K-12 education was good enough to prosper. We graduated prepared so much better for real life than the kids are today.

We had large class sizes too. Never had a class smaller than 35-40 aides or assistants.

Sadly California has dropped to 29th in school quality. UC at Berkeley always in the top three rotation with Harvard and Stanford. Cal was 13th last I looked.

The pathetic thing is that 40% of the general fund is mandated for education, add in the CalPers retirement package and it's over half the total state budget. We're not denying the schools funding.

A couple of years ago I had to staff a call center for a client ...not entry level mind you...minimum of three years work experience..very good pay and benefits. 85% of the hundreds of applicants couldn't past a standard 5th grade math test. We bought standard boiler-plate employment testing packages used by private, state and local HR wide.

One young guy who failed both the English and math tests filed a complaint with the EEOC claiming that he shouldn't be required to test..that it was discrimination. Fortunately it was dismissed at the next admin level...but the experience is very telling...he couldn't do 4 column addition but he knew where to go to sue.


Posted by: feste at August 14, 2003 06:27 PM

Unfortunately, while our teachers routinely coped with 30-40 kids per class, the current crop of teachers is expected to do too many things that have nothing to do with teaching, and they aren't allowed to "be mean". I'm not a teacher, myself, but I did substitute in the local high school back in the mid 1960s. Even then the teachers were being intimidated by big kids who carried knives and such. Fortunately, I didn't/don't intimidate easily and the big kids backed down in the face of my determined insistence that they do what I told them to do; but, some of the regular teachers who were more timid had real problems just "controlling" their pupils. I don't know what the answer is; but, the schools aren't the only places with similar problems. I believe that the USA (and the world--and California) just has too many people for effective, interconnected governance.

Posted by: Cop Car at August 16, 2003 10:58 AM

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