Tag Archives: Genesee Hills Elementary School

In Praise of the Pencil

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In 5th grade, Mr. Zych lectured all of his students about how to properly sharpen a pencil. He wasn’t messing around. His speech was not short, and he covered everything from how to properly grip the pencil to the cranking motion – how it should be smooth and continuous, not jerky. He even discussed the perils of over-sharpening, which could lead to premature tip-breakage. Mr. Zych turned pencil sharpening into a science.

Personally, I have had a love-hate relationship with pencils. I first learned how to print my alphabet in pencil and then I learned how to write in cursive in pencil. That was Paradise. Finally, a way to write all the stories stored in my head. Later, I preferred to write with pens – preferably ones filled with purple or green ink. But ever since my son started school, he has been forever in need of pencils; they seem to always be around, and so I returned to the yellow pencils of my youth. I had learned to appreciate the feel of a pencil in my hand again. I even started to like the scratchy-scratchy sound of the graphite as it dragged across the page. After I recently stepped on a pencil, I became suspicious of them again and switched back to pens.

Meanwhile, my son is still on a steady diet of pencils. In middle school, the kids seem to devour them: literally and figuratively. I know my son nibbles on his; I’ve seen the teeth marks. I’ve watched him crunch while he contemplates before committing to writing an answer on paper. But sometimes I wonder if he actually eats them, too. I mean, where do they go? How many pencils does one kid need in a school year?

A few weeks back, Monkey came home in a tizzy.

“I’m out of pencils again,” he announced.

Nonplussed, I told him there were under three weeks of school left and that I was pretty sure he could make-do with his nubs until June 20.

He started at me with contempt.

“Are you serious?” he questioned. “I have exams! I need pencils! Ticonderogas. Now!”

He was not messing around.

The next day while in the grocery store – to my horror – I found plenty of office supplies, but they were only generic pencils. And even I know that those erasers don’t do the job. You need another eraser to get rid of the smears those lame pencils leave behind.

So I made an extra trek, this time to Staples – home of the Ticonderoga pencil – and invested in the Bulk pack. (Because that was all they had.) Let’s be clear. Ticonderoga pencils are like platinum. They cost a fortune. The only way a pencil could be more fabulous would be if you printed your name on pencils. A Ticonderoga is the Hum-V in the wonderful world of pencils. Teachers definitely prefer them. Definitely.

I rationalized that I could spend $15.77 + nearly 9% tax on pencils because they are non-perishable, so it is not like they will ever rot or mold. And I figured whatever is left at the end of the school year, Monkey can use in 7th grade, thus saving me some back-to-school shopping hassle.

A few days later, a good friend of mine called me and reported that her son – also a 6th grader – had run out of pencils. While requesting to buy more, she said my name was invoked. Apparently her son said:

“Can you just be like Mrs. J. and get the Giant Pack of 72 Ticonderoga pencils?”

Apparently Monkey had been bragging about his new stash.

I laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it. Bragging about pencils?

And then I thought about how I had come full circle. Just one week before, I was cursing pencils as my husband dug around my heel with a needle in an attempt to get the lead out. (I know, I know. Pencils are made of graphite. I was going for the funny.) But now I found myself saying a silent prayer on behalf of all pencil-loving children everywhere. Uncharacteristically, I clasped my hands together and thought to myself:

Lord, may this be the worst thing my child ever desires. May this be his worst addiction. May he never see cocaine. May he never use LSD or heroin. May he avoid cigarettes and alcohol. May he avoid the ‘shrooms, the X, the meth. May he never huff. May he find the strength to avoid the Oxycontin and Adderall.

May he always be addicted to Ticonderoga pencils.

Because, honestly, I’ll happily help Monkey score his Ticonderoga pencils forever. I’ll even help him sharpen them. Mr. Zych schooled me on that a long time ago, and I feel confident I can help my son with his #2 pencil fix without any need for an Intervention.

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School Is Not the Time To Make Friends

When I was a student at Genesee Hills Elementary School in the 1970s, we had quite a bit of free time during which we actually interacted with our peers: during lunch, recess, specials, sure. But also during class. In 3rd grade with Mrs. Marmillo and Mr. Barnello, we enjoyed an amazing invention called “Boy, Girl and Group of the Week.” A concept that would never fly now, I feel fortunate to have been part of this fabulous, classroom environment, and I know dozens of people who likely feel the same way.

Before I tell you about Boy, Girl & Group of the Week, keep in mind, this classroom phenomenon happened in 1976 — more than 30 years ago — so I could be wrong on some of the basics (so for those who may remember, feel free to chime in).

I want to say that on Friday afternoons, students from our two 3rd grade classrooms gathered together to nominate students as Boy and Girl of the Week. Students who went out of their way to do something nice for their peers were considered, so we said things like:

I want to nominate Jeff F. as Boy of the Week because he lent me a pencil when I didn’t have one.

or

I want to nominate Siobhan E. because she got me a tissue when I had a bloody nose, and then she helped me to the nurse’s office.

Meanwhile, our teachers sat quietly and made hash marks (or something) on a clipboard. Unless, we gave too many nominations to the same kid — in which case they would encourage us to look around the room and notice people who had possibly never been nominated, they were pretty silent.

When we finished, our teachers determined and announced the Boy, Girl and Group of the Week. (Maybe it was predetermined. It probably was.) The prize? Winners got the privilege of walking from our elementary school to Burger King, a little less than a mile away, sometime the following week along with our teachers. To get to BK, we walked on roads – not sidewalks. Yes, there were a few cars, but we walked – single-file in sun and in slush – to get to a hamburger, small fries and a soft-drink. It was heaven.

Imagine teachers pulling off this weekly field trip in 2010. It’s practically impossible.

First off, I have a feeling 90% of today’s parents would say they don’t like the idea because Burger King is fattening, and (in case you hadn’t heard), we have an obesity epidemic in our country. Okay, this may be the case when you are eating BK every day. But we weren’t back then. And we used our lunch and recess periods (both of which were longer than they are now) to walk to and from Burger King. The trek was just under 1.5 miles, but we walked briskly, so it was a good healthy walk.

We used our best manners while waiting in line. I remember standing in the BK queue, preparing to place my order — using my own voice to speak to an adult, “One hamburger, please,” I would say, careful to add, “Thank you.” Eating with my teachers and friends was a most amazing reward! We learned so much about each other during our walks to and from school and while sitting in the big booths together. We learned about our teachers’ families, their children. We learned if our classmates had siblings, what color our classmates’ rooms were painted, and if we liked to play the same games. We learned whose parents were divorced. Hell, we learned what the word divorce meant! We learned to speak, and we learned to listen.

I imagine, these days, most parents wouldn’t like the idea of children walking on main roads with traffic. Because people worry about things like that these days. Because someone could get hit by a car! Or get abducted! Or fall into a ditch and twist an ankle! (The last scenario was probably the most likely.)

As far as I know, my parents signed one skinny permission slip to allow me to go on the aforementioned trip off campus to BK and provided me with the requisite dollar or so to purchase my meal. These days, I imagine there would be a 12-page document that would have to be signed by parents, promising to waive their rights to this, that and the other thing. Back then, nobody worried that we were going to get hit by cars or fall in gulches or get kidnapped. Everyone just kind of assumed giving children additional privileges came with giving us additional responsibilities. People sought to broaden our world experience rather than limit our boundaries.

We had so many opportunities to practice civility in elementary school. It was okay to have a little idle chatter time built into our day. The classroom was the place where we learned our academics, but we also practiced our social skills. Today, I would imagine that most administrators would tell parents that there is simply not time for idle chitter-chatter. A few years ago a school administrator told me that “school is not the place for children to make friends.” She argued that kids needed to get involved in extra-curricular activities if they were interested in making friendships. She explained teachers needed to make the most of classroom time to prepare students for standardized tests, that teachers have more to teach than ever.

In 2010, I would argue “the civility piece” has fallen out of the curriculum — along with the belief that there are benefits to idle time. In 1976, it seemed like there was an emphasis on these things, as well as the other things we learned as by-products: patience (eventually everyone got to be Boy or Girl of the Week), paying attention to the little things, actually making an effort to help out a fellow student in need, being a good citizen (not just because it could get you a trip to Burger King but because it felt good). And a million other things, too.

And in this age of technology, a little more emphasis on these seemingly insignificant niceties could go far to help kids plug into each other and their behaviors. I mean, a student might not bully the kid upon whose vote he depends to get some kind of special reward.

And I would argue that sometimes the greatest life-lessons occur when it doesn’t appear that one is learning at all.

But that’s probably a hard sell these days.

Lessons From Mrs. Church

Mrs. Church stands in the far right of the back row.

I loved Mrs. Church, my 2nd grade teacher, from the very first day of school. Among other things, she taught a unit on Hawaii where we made grass skirts and learned songs about “going to a hukilau”: I still know the words. She let us sample real sugar cane and poi, each of us dipping our fingers into the community bowl with our two fingers. Lord knows where she got the stuff. She wore crazy, clunky necklaces that epitomized the 1970s – owls with big eyes, huge butterflies, giant yellow flowers. She wore two-piece, polyester, polka-dotted pantsuits, and her ragged-edged haircut made it appear she did the job herself at home.

Mrs. Church literally had my back, and she rescued me when a certain twit who sat at the desk directly behind me decided that it would be fun to cut my hair with his dull-bladed scissors. She must have read his mind because I barely felt the tug of his hands on the back of my head when she called out, “Mr. So-and-So, you may bring those scissors up to my desk now.”

She encouraged me to write and revise, and – eventually – to enter a writing contest held at our local library the spring of my 2nd grade year. I don’t know if I won or not (probably not), but I remember the way she made me feel: like I could do anything.

Please share a memory of one of your favorite teachers. What did he/she do that makes you remember him/her all these years later?

The prompt was to write about a favorite mentor in under 500 words. I wrote about this when my blog was very new, and I had very few followers. I’d love to honor my old teacher, a woman I think about nearly every day.

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