Tag Archives: institutions

Simple writing prompt mentally sends me back in time to the classroom

By Bruce Stambaugh

The assignment was to write about an object of our choosing located in this sterile college classroom. Typical for a writing workshop, the prompt was designed to get the participants to use sensory descriptors to illustrate the object.

I chose the pencil sharpener affixed to the wall by the only doorway in this institutional setting. The sharpener stood out for me because it seemed so out of place in this 21st century technologically driven global society of ours.

manual pencil sharpener

An old pencil sharpener.

I wondered what in the world an old-fashioned pencil sharpener was doing in this classroom in 2017? Did anyone even use pencils anymore? I thought college students recorded everything on smartphones, iPads and laptop computers.

The answer to my silent wondering became evident as I scanned this bland environment. Everything in this classroom screamed 1977.

Boring blue-gray paint covered the cement block walls on three sides. Strange, random circular insets pockmarked the poured cement west wall. Front and back white boards with telltale scribbling from previous lessons served as classroom bookends. Parallel rows of the old-style fluorescent lights emitted a familiar faint buzzing sound. The textured tile of the suspended ceiling held the lights captive. The well-worn Formica tabletops told their age. I wiggled in the uncomfortable hard plastic molded seats riveted to shiny steel supports that were the student chairs.

My eyes kept returning to the pencil sharpener. It engaged my mind, generating pleasant, personal flashbacks to my teaching days now long past. Nostalgia washed over me as I studied the sharpener and rapidly scrawled my notes. I pictured my classroom setting.

Keen, evocative thoughts flooded my brain bringing a smile to my face. This pencil sharpener was situated exactly where all of the others in my elementary classrooms had been, right by the door and hung conveniently above a wastebasket.

The sights, sounds, smell, and textures associated with sharpening a pencil mentally filled my senses. I fixated on the circular dial with holes on the sharpener’s face. It accommodated various pencil sizes, the bulbous container that held the shavings, and the crank handle. The sharpener possessed me.

elementary school

Where I was principal for 21 years.

To keep the custodian happy, I often emptied the pencil sharpeners of their spent contents myself. Students occasionally managed to somehow miss the wastebasket, spilling the shredded pencil shavings and pulverized lead and graphite residue onto the floor.

The pencil sharpener was the office water cooler of the elementary classroom. If a line formed, I instinctively knew students had more than pencil sharpening in mind.

Some students made a game out of it. They would stand quietly and crank the sharpener’s handle, grinding the poor pencil to a pulp.

Despite my obsession, the sharpener’s reservoir often overflowed its ground up contents. The intermingled woody, metallic scent of the shavings invigorated my senses. That pungent freshness helped compromise the curious blend of 30 human body odors. I’ll let your imagination fill in the details.

black and white photo of students

Some of my first students.

With the students studying at their desks, I quietly emptied the sharpener’s mutilated remains into the wastebasket with several quick shakes back-and-forth to ensure all the grindings found their mark. I replaced the sharpener’s rounded case with a metal-against-metal clink and returned to my instructional duties.

I was both surprised and elated by how this unique, unsophisticated classroom mechanism had spawned such poignant recollections for me. This writing assignment triggered treasures long forgotten, aromas and delightful textures resurrected from my 30-year career as a public school educator.

I wouldn’t trade them for anything, not even an electric pencil sharpener.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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