Sharpening

Every Friday, I stuff folders in my daughter’s first grade classroom. I did not volunteer for this task. No other parents volunteered. The teacher needed someone to do it, so now I do. Part of the reason I agreed is because I was curious about what happens in first grade. While I sort assignments, crafts, and tests into piles for each student, I peer into the classroom to see what’s going on. I sit in the shared office for four teachers and watch the students through an open door. Four or five children sit at each round table. They complete their work at different times. They talk to one another. They watch and listen to the teacher as she calls out each word of the spelling test. A few kids are dreamy like my daughter. Some fidget and tap. Others have energy that cannot be contained by a blue plastic chair and a round table. They stand up and down looking for any excuse to move. More than a few sit perfectly still, waiting to find out what assignment they need to complete next. I fidget more as I watch the stillness. I move when they can’t seem to.

At first, stuffing folders was a chore that I never looked forward to. Friday morning would arrive, and I would wake up and sigh dramatically. Two hours of my morning offered up freely. Two hours that I didn’t get to write, research, or read. Two hours sacrificed on the altar of being a good and engaged mother. Two hours I would never get back. Two hours lost to me each week. Why, I wondered yet again, did I ever agree to this? I choked back irritation and filled the folders anyway. On more than one Friday, I considered backing out, but I managed to convince myself not to.

One Friday in November, or maybe December, my perspective shifted. All the folders were finished. I gulped coffee from my “World’s Okayest Mom” mug and then asked the teacher if there was anything else I could do to help. I asked before I realized what I was asking. “Pencils,” she said firmly, “We need pencils sharpened.”

So, I collected pencils, No. 2 and colored, from each table to sharpen one by one. There’s an electric sharpener in the teachers’ shared office. It sounds like each pencil it sharpens brings it inevitably closer to death. It doesn’t grind as much as gasp. I started to sharpen pencils, and it occurred me that I haven’t really sharpened a pencil since I was in high school. Would I remember how? My high school’s sharpeners were mechanical with a handle that you cranked. I loved that my hands provided the energy for the blades to make my pencils sharp and usable again. I loved the softer sound of grinding. I enjoyed the teacher’s sigh of frustration when I wanted my pencil the sharpest it could be.

I eyed the dying electric sharpener; I don’t trust it. I don’t even like the look of it. I inserted one pencil, then two, and three. Unsurprisingly, it gave up one last gasp. I overheated it. This wouldn’t happen with a mechanical sharpener, I thought as I gave it one last evil glance.

I rounded up the pencils and headed to the media center, which boasts not one, but two sharpeners. One is an industrial monstrosity that emits a loud grinding noise. I wondered if it actually ate pencils rather than getting rid of their dull tips. Some pencils appear remarkably smaller after their encounter with it. Quickly, I learned that most No. 2 pencils are easy to sharpen. Graphite dust coated my hand and the counter. One package of No. 2 pencils stubbornly refused to sharpen, and I had to smash the tip and start over. Small blisters appeared on my middle and index fingers. My hands turned gray.

Colored pencils, however, are a different story. They simply do not want to be sharpened. They resist and break. I try to force them into the sharpener, which only makes them break more. I uncover that treating them gently helps them become sharp. Force never works, but a lighter touch does. This feels like a metaphor for something larger, but my mind can’t quite figure out what. My mind wanders as I sharpen. I let it.

Resentment bubbles up to the surface. I could be writing. I could be doing anything else rather than sharpening pencils. This is a mind-numbing task. Or is it? I think of Miya Tokumitsu’s Do What You Love And Other Lies About Success And Happiness on love, success, and work in our time of capitalism. Tokumitsu writes about the undervaluing of care in our neoliberal existence. We need to take care of the young, the sick, and the old. This is crucial work for our families and our large societies, but this important work is routinely ignored (that also falls heavily on women). Care appears to not have a monetary value unless you can make money from it. We undervalue it instead of seeing its benefit to all of us. We all need care, even if we refuse to see it.

Sharpening pencils is an act of care. Little hands dull pencil tips daily. Pencils bear the burden of their progress. They are a required tool for my daughter and her classmates to accomplish their work. Pencils need to be sharpened, and someone has to sharpen them. It might as well be me. Sharpening pencils helped both the teacher and the class because I took a chore away from them. I did something for them, so that they don’t have to.

I let my resentment go and searched for gratitude instead. How lucky was I to devote two hours a week to help my daughter’s class? I am lucky. I’m also grateful that I can offer help when they need it.

Pencil sharpening is now not a chore, but a meditative practice for me. A task that needs completing. A task that keeps my hands busy. A task that helps. Pencil in. Pencil out. Pick up another begin again. The grinding no longer bothers me because it is the metric of my progress.

Today, I sharpened pencils again, all of the color pencils in fact. As I picked up each pencil, I marveled at my hands touching an artifact that is so essential to the life of the classroom. I thought of all the small hands that pick up these pencils each day. My daughter’s hands take up these pencils that I’ve sharpened. I’m refreshing the tools the class requires to do their work. The pencil offers up a connection. From them to me and back again.

Such a small chore makes a large connection. I think of all the tiny tasks that must be accomplished for a classroom to run. I think about how we tend to ignore chores, especially they are small and we imagine them to be inconsequential. The small ones are often the most important.

I look at all the sharpened pencils in front of me. They contain potential. They are ready again to be dulled by everyday use. Little hands require them, so I will refresh them again next week. I’m humbled by the opportunity.

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