For a first-grader in September, a pencil sharpener is nothing short of a miracle. That hand crank rasps and grates, drowning out the teacher's drone. The scent of fresh wood shavings rises to the nostrils, smelling like newly mown grass, while graphite powder drifts down to smudge fingers.
Back when I was a new first-grade teacher, before I'd had time to give much thought to the matter, I found that half my class was assembled behind the sharpener like a spirited bread line. They poked and jostled one another, their voices swelling above my prescribed "indoor" level.
Not yet at ease with my new responsibility for maintaining order, I made a hasty proclamation: "All this pencil sharpening is wasting valuable time and distracting others," I said. "From now on, only two people are allowed at the sharpener at any one time!"
Remarkably, the students seemed to believe I had the power to pull rules out of thin air. The bread line evolved into an endless do-si-do of partners jockeying for one of the two places of honor.
Within days, children who could not yet count to five were calculating the shortest path through the desks and scanning the room for competitors to race for the next turn. Math manipulatives lay untouched and journal pages blank as students swiveled around in their chairs, craning their necks the better to eyeball the sharpener. I began to dream about pencil sharpeners and awoke grinding my teeth in the middle of the night. New rule: "From now on, pencils can only be sharpened during snack and free-choice time."
By November, the novelty had worn off, and the class had settled into something resembling a routine. A few malingerers invented new and creative sharpener havoc, however. Eddie sharpened and sharpened and sharpened, reducing a brand new No. 2 pencil to a nub - point and eraser, the essence of pencil - until it whirled out of his grasp and had to be pried from the sharpener's maw by the custodian. Peter would sharpen a pen cap, inserting his finger in the other end of the cap to steady it as he painstakingly sheared off bits of plastic that littered the floor below. When the cap could no longer reach the blade, he'd remove the sharpener's protective silver cover, laying bare the skeleton that gnashed at his fingers. Ryan preferred to booby-trap the cover, twisting it off, then replacing it loosely so that the next user sent it tumbling to the floor, scattering graphite grounds to be tracked all over the room.
The early races to sharpen had been loud and distracting. Now behavior was growing increasingly destructive and dangerous. Desperate, I banned their sharpening altogether. For a month, each morning at 7:30 I would sigh, resigned to the woody taste that rose to fill my mouth as I honed 30 neat, sharp points - only to have them worn down by noontime, when children would be reduced to gripping at odd angles, pressing down to rub a few more letters from dull, broad tips. Some students snapped off the points on purpose.
I finally snapped, too, and confessed my feelings of helplessness to the students at one morning meeting. In a burst of honesty, I dropped all pretense of authority and poise. The class did not rise up against me as I had feared, the way a pride of lions takes down a jackal at the first sign of weakness. Instead, they rose to the occasion, proudly developing an efficient system of keeping sharpened pencils in tubs on each group of desks. At the end of each day, rotating table captains, their chests swelled with responsibility, culled and sharpened the stubby pencils and readied the tubs for the next day's use.
Hmm.... Maybe I didn't have to choose between being a "show them who's boss, never smile till Christmas" despot and a "collapse in a heap while the class runs amok" patsy, after all. The students and I could solve our problems together.
The peaceful resolution of the sharpener standoff left us free to begin negotiations on restroom etiquette, the number of chair legs that belong on the floor, and the relative merits of stomping on milk cartons in a crowded cafeteria. In December, the room parents bought me a present that was nothing short of a miracle - my own electric pencil sharpener.