I squat quietly by the wastebasket, patiently and meticulously whittling this wood pencil to perfect round point, and I reflect: What an awesome, tranquil little ritual, a wonderful way to start the morning! What satisfaction just from this little bit of craftsmanship! When was the last time you gave reflection on sharpening a pencil? When was the last time anyone ever used a wood pencil anyways! Well I lost my Fisher space pen, and my scribbles are really ugly with ball points anyways, so its back to scrounging wood pencils for me, the oft joked about communist space pen.
There is something admirable about traditional wood pencils, namely that their experience is so ephemeral. The more you use it and enjoy it, the less there is of it, until one day all that is left is a stub. Cute, but not too useful. Long new unsharpened pencils are elegant and look so perfectly refined, with their erasers still square and unused, but they too are of little use, and just lacking in that personality and character of a well used stub. I think I learned to appreciate wood pencils from Mr. Wilbur Mandac, the assistant band director at my time at Lynbrook. It seemed he always had one of those American flag pencils stuck behind his ear, and that’s what he conducted with in lieu of a baton. I guess that’s also where I picked up that habit of carrying pencils on my ear… Thanks Mr. Mandac.
It blew my mind away one day probably about 1994 when I first went to china. Students there carry little short bladed razor sharp pencil sharpening knives in their book bags all the time to school. Imagine that! Every student carrying pencil sharpening knives to school-what if they were to stab each other with them? We’ll take a moment now for mothers and teachers to freak out. Well I bought and borrowed several of those fascinating little knives to play with then, but what I didn’t realize is that the actual knife has very little to do with anything. Whens the last time you sharpened your pencil with a knife? Or with a blade of an open pair of scissors? Hell, did you know that you could sharpen your pencil on the sidewalk, and it would work great!? The issue at hand is that we’ve trained ourselves to lose so many little skills that once even elementary school children thought mundane! Back in the day you walked to school, its hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and when it rains you get wet! What is this whining about A/C nowadays? Can’t do you homework because your iPad is out of batteries! Can’t even take pride in doing something so small and satisfying like sharpening your own pencil. You don’t need a special little trinket to solve your problems! The trinket, the pencil sharpener, the magic bullet is not the solution. The solutions are in ourselves, not to be found without.
Okay how about knives in school? knives, like guns and cars, and pointy words, are tools. They do what the wielder commands, and are incapable of causing harm in and of themselves. So! Here’s a vignette for you: several years ago we had a big airsoft event. This Marine who was a friend of one of the club members came to join us. He had his big razor sharp new Ka-Bar fighting/field knife, and while trying to make a simple cut of some cord what does he do? Slices his own hand open! An American Marine with his own knife! No terrorists were involved in this casualty, blame rests on ourselves as a society. We may feel like we spared all these children’s safety by sterilizing their school environment of things like pencil sharpening knives, and teaching our kids to use civilized tools such as pencil sharpeners, but in reality we starve them of 2 critical skills:
1. Knives have been around for a long, long time. Second to the club, cutting instruments are probably Mankind’s most fundamental of tools! It’s pretty important to be familiar with them and be knowledgeable in how to care for one and use one, for practicality and safety.
2. These sort of rules teach our children that things can only be done one way, for example the only way to get around is by car, the only way to power a car is by gas, the only way to solve a problem is to buy the solution, the only way to find a solution is to have it given to you. In effect destroying children’s natural curiosity, creativity, and resourcefulness.
Think about it. This all of course pertains to much more than just pencils and knives. When’s the last time you heard on fundamental skills of self sufficiency being taught as critical curriculum? Things such as: how to keep a wound clean if you get a booboo. how to start a fire using tinder. How to read a map cuz your GPS is clueless. How to use needle and thread to repair tears in cloth or leather items. How to find and modify recipes, cook and feed yourself. How to check your car’s oil without a shop. How to open a can without a can opener, how to fold and cut or tear paper without scissors. How to tie useful and fundamental knots such as the bowline and taut-line. How to coax little plants to grow, such that you can plant a garden and understand where food comes from. How to raise and slaughter, or hunt for meat, to clean the animals and make use of all the parts, to appreciate that all meat is life.
Last night I took the dogs to socialize on the beach. There was a young lady there with her husband and some friends. She wanted to smoke a cigarette and was asking around to borrow a lighter. I pointed out the obvious to her: “Um, we are all sitting around a bonfire! You could just light it in there…” She responded: “I just wanted to light my cigarette, not become the next burn victim!” There was a beautiful outdoor open air gas fire in a ring of boulders right before us, and she was helpless to light her cig without a lighter!! I coached her on, how she could get to the side and stick the cig in the base of the flames, but she was hesitant, so onlookers encouraged me to take it from her and do it myself, to be a gentleman. I did so, and as I crouched down near the flames and lit the tip, she wondered how I could light it without sucking through it at the same time, which is normal procedure with a lighter or match I guess. This is another perfect example of how with the combination of technology, well meaning educators, and profit seeking businesses, we are now dumber as a society that we were just a few decades ago!