Jerry’s body language told me that he was bored. Heck, I was bored. Unlike him, who had his face planted on the top of his desk and was probably taking a nap, I was at the front of the class reviewing the syllabus and classroom procedures. I wanted to take a nap, too.
“This is the in-box– turn your work in here. This is the out-box– once your work is corrected, it’ll be here. This is my desk. Don’t touch it,” I explained as I made my way to the pencil sharpener, “And this is the pencil sharpener. If you need your pencil sharpened, ask me to do it. It doesn’t like students.”
Jerry lifted his head sharply, giving me a look that clearly said, “What the hell?!”. Ah, he was paying attention.
The pencil sharpener is a run-of-the-mill shiny silver dial-a-hole, crank-handle model mounted to the side of a cupboard. There’s nothing that separates it from the hordes of sharpeners the world over, except that the user has to earn its respect. For the last six years it has taken fiendish delight breaking, eating, or just flat refusing to sharpen my students’ pencils. It can turn a brand new Ticonderoga into a stub in no time flat. Students, who have learned their lessons the hard way, just give me their pencils and watch in awe as I return it to them sharp and gleaming.
One day as we worked on imagery and figurative language posters, Jerry brought me an orange colored pencil and asked if I’d sharpen it. He watched me closely as I inserted the pencil, cranked the handle, and returned it to him. As far as he could tell, I used the sharpener the exact same way he was taught how to use it way back in kindergarten. He looked at the sharpener. He looked at me.
“I can do this. I can use this sharpener!” he exclaimed.
“Oh really?,” I retorted, smiling at him, “You want to take on the pencil sharpener?”
He nodded his head, “Yeah. There’s nothing special about this.”
“Go for it,” I challenged.
He marched back to his group and grabbed two more pencils and marched back.
“Now watch this,” he said as he thrust the first one in, cranked, and pulled it out. The pencil emerged, its round wooden tip formed a cave around where the lead should have been. “What the…?!”
I grinned up at him as I took the pencil out of his hand and expertly returned it to him healthy and whole, “As I said. It doesn’t like students.”
Jerry gave me a look meant to wither me. This had escalated from a mild skirmish to an all out war. Nothing was going to get the best of him– especially not his pipsqueak of an English teacher and her demonic pencil sharpener. And especially not in front of the entire class whose attention was now directed at this heated battle.
“Move aside,” he commanded as he tested his abilities on his second pencil. He again cranked the handle. A hollow sound emanated from the sharpener’s belly. “What! It’s broken now! It’s not even sharpening!” He cranked some more. It was clear the grinders hadn’t caught the pencil. The class tittered.
“It can’t be broken. I just used it,” I replied as I took over. It worked and sharpened the pencil.
He was stunned and visibly frustrated as the class laughed. “Look,” he said as he glared down at me, “you’re crazy. Your pencil sharpener’s crazy. This is crazy.”
He marched back to his seat, plopped down, and crossed his arms. He shook his head at me as I grinned and pet the pencil sharpener.
A couple of minutes passed. He grabbed a yellow pencil and made his way toward me. One of his classmates alerted everyone, “Look! He’s going back!”
He stared down at me, rolling the pencil in between his fingers. “I’m going to do it, Ms. L. I’m going to sharpen this pencil.”
“By all means, please do,” I responded.
Shaking out his shoulders, he squared up to the sharpener. He gave me nod; the class looked on in anticipation. He placed the pencil inside, grabbed the handle, focused, and cranked quickly. As if waiting for a sign, he suddenly stopped. He pulled it out and there it was: just the curl of a wood shaving dangling from the pointy yellow tip.
He brought the top of the pencil up to his mouth like a tip of a gun and blew off the shaving. He smiled at me as the class burst into applause.