The Quirk & the Beauty of
A Vanishing Classroom Trio
As millions of children (reluctantly) return to school this week in the northern hemisphere, many will be familiar with what they’ll find in class: laptops, the smart whiteboard, LED displays. What they probably will have no use for are pencils, erasers and chalks, first grade staples of bygone centuries.
Those who grew up mastering their use may be now more concerned about incontinence and memory loss, but artists still rave about these relics. For them, the smell, taste, and feel of those things are indelibly connected with the wonders (and miseries) of childhood, and should not be missed. But alas, we’ve already seen people declaring their love for the smell of computers.
We consider those, who’re already fully immersed in the high-tech realm of interactive learning, children of privilege, to be sure. They’re still in the minority of school age kids throughout the world, where most would be very lucky if they could have a decent breakfast when they get up in the morning, let alone a class to attend.
Our priorities as a society are indeed screwed up, and deep in slums and miserable places of this Earth, one can still find a HDTV or a multitude of iPhones. But we remain hopeful that at least some of the good aspects of living in the future will eventually trickle down and find their way to the kids.
So back in the printed book-free environment of today’s rich schools, preteens are already masters of the digital world, at easy with complex software, and ready to access our whole civilization at the touch of a key. Still it’s too bad they will do it without having ever smelled graphite or eraser crumbs, or heard that cringing-inducing sound of chalk tracing on a blackboard.
So before we all forget what many have never learned anyway, about pencils, erasers, and chalk, let’s get a primer on some quirky facts about these three legendary tools, which have ushered humankind across the millennia through the basics of knowledge. Until, of course, they got unceremoniously replaced, and are now on the verge of oblivion.
SPROUTING PENCILS & ERASERHEADS
Can we interest you in a pencil loaded with seeds of basil, sage or tomato? It’d enhance and spice up the experience of writing, for those who like to nibble while thinking. Once it becomes too small for you to put down your thoughts, the Sprout can be easily placed in a cup of soil and it’ll blossom, just in time for the next holidays.
For its inventor, Mario Bollini, of Democratech, it beat its alternative: to design a new eraser tip, according to SmartPlanet’s Beth Carter. The capsule inside the Sprout can be stuffed with 20 different types of seeds, which are water-activated, just like any plant. And it becomes awfully decorative too.
Bollini is not the only one to consider the Palomino Blackwing, the eraser-tipped pencil invented by Hyman Lipman, just fine, but not in need of yet another improvement. The patent acquired by Joseph Reckendorfer has been the market standard since the middle 1800s, but it didn’t really caught on outside the U.S., according to New Yorker’s Mary Norris.
Her well-researched piece on the history of the eraser traces the invention of the pencil back to 1650 in Nuremberg, when lead was first glued to wood. Who knows how many perished by lead poisoning until it was replaced, but the eraser had a food-related start: people used bread crumbs first, before rubbers were invented and then vinyl was adopted.
ANCIENT TINY WHITE SKELETONS
Another artifact that’s heading the way of the Dodo and the subway token, with varying degrees of longevity compared to these two, is the chalk. Its proven track of services to the benefit of instruction of children cuts a swath across the centuries that’s difficult to quantify. But it’s even harder to know for sure who exactly will miss it.
Which is a pity. Except for the piercing, unforgettable experience of hearing a piece of a particularly hard chalk scratching the black (or green) board, most of our recollections about it are pleasant. Then again, most of us had no idea where does it come from, and how come no one ever told us about it before.
So here’s the big secret about chalk, revealed in an entertaining piece about it by NPR’s Robert Krulwich: chalk is the product of ‘ancient skeletons that once belonged to little critters that lived and floated in the sea, captured a little sunshine and carbon, then died and sank to the bottom.’
Technically, they are single-celled phytoplankton algae, he adds, just to horrify even more all those who like to lick and nibble on chalk, while thinking. We know, there’re not many of us left now. Still, the white stuff is underneath everything on Earth, from the bottom of the Atlantic to the White Cliffs of Dover.
We thank the discovery of the structure of chalk to Thomas Huxley, who first observed it under the microscope. In an 1868 lecture, he went as far as to say, with the traditional British flair for understatement, that ‘a great chapter of the history of the world is written in chalk.’ Wouldn’t you know it?
THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME
And yet, the more things change, the more they remain, well, slightly constant. We bet that one of the reasons most Greek philosophers had disciples, but not children, was an essentially conscious decision to avoid having to wake them up in the morning and send them to school.
What’s universally considered an insufferable and colossal bore, turns out to be mostly remembered later in life with affection. For the majority of humans, that’s the last truly carefree time of our lives, unless, of course, it’s corrupted by some horrible circumstance, in which case, all bets are off.
For those in charge of making sure they do get up and get the hell out, under threat of dismemberment, there’s the reward of finally seeing them walking on their own feet. And then pretending they don’t recognize us in the street. And then getting into trouble. And then, well, do we need to keep on going?
So what? They may never feel the pleasure of smelling graphite, or eating rubber crumbs, or licking chalk. It may as well be for the best. They’ll waste time sniffing screens, or scratching plastic laptops, or spilling cappuccinos on keyboards just the same. And will endure the same charge, that they do that sort of thing just to annoy those who put up the cash for them to buy those gadgets.
At the end of the day, grownups only hope their kids make a big deal of this time of their lives the way they, the grownups, never managed to make it. And that kids brush their teeth. And call home once in a while. You know, stuff that only those who sniffed pencils, and cringed at the sound of the chalk on the blackboard, seem to enjoy when it happens.