Kenneth, born and raised in the South, resides in Hamilton, Alabama. He enjoys sharing his unique perspectives on life through his writing.
The year was 1961, the year country living and school were at their finest. New Home School in Hamilton, Alabama, was as quaint and charming as any Norman-Rockwell painting. New Home was not an institute of higher learning, though. Oh, I did learn the basics of the three R’s, but that was that. What more could you expect of a two-room schoolhouse? Believe me, "Scarecrow" of The Wizard of Oz would not even want to show-up for studies here.
Mr. L. J. and Mrs. Gertrude Ballard
Mr. L. J. and Mrs. Gertrude Ballard were a husband and wife team that ran the school. Mr. Ballard was not what you would call a very talkative man. He would often stroll from his room into the third-grade room where my teacher Mrs. Ballard held her classes. I was only nine years old and in the third grade at the time.
The Psychology of the Pencil Sharpener
Now, to understand the students’ fascination with the manual pencil sharpener that was mounted on the wall, you have to realize that sharpening the required, number-two pencil up until the invention of the sharpener was limited. You could either use a jackknife to coarsely remove the wood from the lead to get a somewhat blunt point, or maybe you had a quiet, but smooth, single razor sharpener that you stuck on the end of the pencil and turned with your fingers and thumb. Neither of these tools were used in our classroom—the wall pencil sharpener was it.
And what a sharpener it was! When you cranked the handle, the sharpener made a manly sound, much like the grinding inside a wood craftsman’s workshop. The tip of the pencil, upon removal of the accommodating hole, was the sharpest point anyone could want. Everyone loved it. When not in use, the wall sharpener rested silently in pure probity, inviting any pupil whose eyes fell upon it to walk up and sharpen his pencil.
The morning passed quickly. High noon was everyone’s lunchtime, which lasted an hour and a half. Most of us gobbled down what food we had brought to play football, tag or other school game. If Mr. and Mrs. Ballard noticed that we were all getting along, we were allowed to continue our play until our school bus rolled up to take us home. Personally, I never wanted to leave that place.
One day, L.J. strolled into Gertrude’s room and spied a young lady at the pencil sharpener. This young lady, perhaps attracted to the red plastic cover on the sharpener, kept stopping each moment to check how sharp her pencil was.
Then, as if a New-York Broadway director motioned at L.J. to speak, he comically gruntled, “Humph!--sounds like somebody’s grinding up coffee.”
The poor girl was embarrassed and stood frozen, one example of the unchallenged power that wall-mounted pencil sharpener could bring. Eventually, she was able to catch her breath and regain enough composure to return to her desk.
Cupid's Love Arrow
Another aspect of the sharpener’s power was like being hit with a love arrow from Cupid. I observed several students who, as soon as they began grinding, would freeze in the middle of the sharpening, roll their eyes, and wrinkle their faces as taught as set concrete.
Cranking the pencil sharpener’s handle and hearing that attention-getting, grinding sound became a popular pastime. An unspoken ritual developed in the classroom. Every student was aware of the mysterious effect of the sharpening ritual. It became such that when I wanted to get the attention of a girl in my class, all I had to do was stand at the pencil sharpener and grind. If a particular girl showed interest in me, she would often walk to the sharpener right after I had used it and enjoy that same absorbing, grinding sound. It was if the user of the sharpener were saying, “Here I am—come get me!”
Yes, I married that little gal who kept following me to the sharpener, and we’re still in love today.
France and the Pencil Sharpener
Did You Know?
- The French word for pencil sharpener is taille-crayon.
- The first pencil sharpener was patented by Bernard Lassimonne in 1828, French patent #2444, but proved unsuccessful.
- Thierry des Estivaux patented a redesigned pencil sharpener in 1847, nearly two decades later. The French redesign became a classic.
This true-story memoir was rewritten and formatted by Marie Flint.