Lessons from the dust of the ages

For the first time in my many years of teaching, one of my classrooms has no chalkboard or chalk. Rising behind me like a backdrop for a passport photo is a shiny white board. Placed on the neat chalk ledge is a black marker with a cap and a thin, pouffy eraser. When I write, thoughts skid across the board without resistance - no tooth-tingling squeaks, no Morse-code tapping out of each new word, no dust. I think it's the dust I miss most.

I miss the powdery haze around my head, the deep chalky breaths, the snowy coating on the ledge, on the desk, on me. Over the years, I've emerged from the classroom rubbing my palm together, flicking flakes from underneath my nails. I've headed directly to the ladies' room to coax out the chalklines grooved into my fingers, slap the lines from my skirts, and comb the dust from the back of my head.

Like the cafeteria smells trapped in the hallways and the windows that don't work, chalk dust was a predictable part of the teaching day. It was an occupational dusting, a sign of hard work, not unlike, I might guess, the experience of floury bakers on a busy afternoon, or maybe of potters caked with clay.

In elementary school, we wrote our stumbling ABC's on slate blackboards, and, for too much talking in class, we were punished with eraser duty, charged with the enviable task of going outside and clapping the felt slabs into pristine dustlessness. I remember giggling with my equally gabby friends, checking the wind, and holding the erasers at arm's length so the cloud wouldn't reverse back and coat our navy-blue uniforms.

I've taught through many changes since. I've coped with the phasing-out of blackboards, writing clickety-clack over the jagged cracks and ridges until greenboards with softer surfaces were installed. I've moved from hard, white chalk to yellow, and then to multicolored. Now I have no chalkboard of any color, no chalk at all. Why do I miss them?

Essayists are often reluctant passengers on the train of progress, resisting such developments as straight roads, space travel, the arrival of electric light, and - yes - trains, while at the same time, praising individuality, the delights of idleness, and respect for time past. But I don't think my resistance to the black marker is simply a quirky yearning for days spent giggling at the door of the old red schoolhouse.

For one thing, I like the idea of passing on the wisdom of the ages with an instrument shaped from the skeletons and shells of ancient sea creatures, with a form of limestone, "creta" in Latin, for which the Cretaceous period is named. It seems only right that these fossils be ground to powder in an effort to instruct the rising generation. They live again in the thoughts transmitted.

And as old as these creatures are, chalk itself has a long pedigree - as in the famous White Cliffs of Dover and in the later Iron Age earth carvings of giants, crosses, lions, stags, and horses on the rolling hillsides of Great Britain. I've patted the chalky nose of the great 365-foot-long White Horse of Uffington, and appreciated the generations of historians and grass clippers who have kept him racing wildly across his steep hillside.

In the history of writing implements - fingers, feathers, knives, brushes, chisels, bones, stones, sticks, pens, pencils - chalk has an illustrious past, especially in schools. For getting classroom ideas down, it has a long history of success, without any of the high-tech tendencies in teaching I often resist.

In my "Legend of King Arthur" course, I do sometimes load up the VCR with "Excalibur," "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," or "Knightriders." I do require electronic sources for research in all courses, and I love to search the Net for curious facts, like the length of the Uffington horse, or the ingredients of chalk.

But I prefer to imagine Socrates instructing the best students ever assembled as he strolled unencumbered in the sunny Athenian agora, and I'm inspired by the image of Abelard lecturing his attentive protgs on the stony steps of a Paris cathedral. For teaching, I like to think that all I really need is a small space, a good book, and a group of eager readers ... plus the occasional assistance of a board and a stick of chalk for those hard-to-get words, like "idyll" or "anachronism."

I know I sound out of sync with my own time. I'm aware that modern chalk is not pure limestone, that the chemicals in the markers are probably very old, too, and I worry that only a fossil herself would see the technology of these everyday scribblers as "high," but I still miss my chalk-dusty classrooms.

The markers are not all I resist. I also avoid attending workshops on the latest computer "presentations," those fancy, whirling graphics promising to replace my retro "chalk and talk" classroom with the media magic of the 21st century.

Take, for example, Bessie. In my writing classes since graduate school, where an old composition text gave me the idea, I dash out a drawing of a ladder on the board. At the top rung, I scribble the word "animal;" in the middle, "cow," and at the bottom, "Bessie," accompanied by my own pitiful sketch of a silly spotted bovine. I then tell my students to enliven their general ideas with details, to sink as often as possible to the "Bessie level" of the ladder.

For some reason, this image seems to work - especially my vacuous Bessie. Years later, former students continue to mock my artwork, but still recall her message about details. I suppose a computer- generated Bessie, accompanied by barnyard sounds, would be more colorful, more animated, more cow, but I'm not convinced she'd do a better job teaching paragraph development.

In the not-so-faraway future, students might be amazed to see a 3D ladder making a sketch of itself and then confront a talking, hologram Bessie surging right into their faces. Rather than stare from the board in chalky silence, she could intone her own point about details.

I'm sure I'll adjust to my slippery marker and my unclappable eraser. I'll probably take one of those computer workshops, and maybe I'll even get to like these novelties. But I'll probably slip a piece of chalk into my pocket, a piece I can rub when I'm desperate for a simple message from far away and long ago.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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