The dead lay scattered across the thin-slatted hardwood floor of my classroom.
Bent. Broken. Crushed. Shattered. Shredded.
They began the day as sharpened pencils.
Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2s, to be specific.
These are the finest pencils ever made by humankind.
Their destiny was to scratch out answers to math problems, provide the grist for essay questions, or perhaps form the lines of an artwork — even a doodle.
They should have been partners in a sonnet.
Instead, they’re destroyed by the dozens.
I don’t know why, but sixth graders seem to hate pencils.
I’ve seen them eviscerated in every way imaginable.
One student pulled the eraser off her pencil and bent the metal band atop the pencil into a kind of cutting tool.
She proceeded to gut a second pencil.
She carved all the way to the graphite vein running through the center of the pencil.
Wooden shards covered her desk.
I looked at the mess.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
I was prepared for students to find me dull or out-of-touch.
I am a 47-year-old man who runs on nostalgia. I remember when the Incredible Hulk was played by a real guy, Lou Ferrigno, and not a bunch of ones and zeros on a computer somewhere at Disney.
I was prepared to be so dull that students would rather spend 5 minutes in a middle school restroom than follow along with my PowerPoint presentation.
I was even prepared for constant requests for water because my lectures were sucking the very life from their bones and blood.
But I wasn’t prepared to be so boring to students that they would turn to wanton violence on innocent pencils.
I am told, however, that this is just something that happens at that age.
And the writing instrument devastation is not limited to pencils.
The ink from a black pen stains a pair of my desks near the front of the room.
I’m told the pen “exploded.”
That happens, you know.
It’s why every Bic has in fine print on the casing, “FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY.”
Red ink stains the floor and a desk in the back of the room.
My students are convinced it is blood from a student fight.
I may not be an expert teacher six weeks into my new career, but I know enough not to allow disputes to produce blood.
Not only do I love my charges and do not wish harm on them, but student injuries are a lot of paperwork and meetings that I don’t need.
I remind myself that 36 years have passed since I was an 11-year-old.
Most of my cousin’s kids are high school age or even in college.
I don’t have kids.
It’s just been a long time since I’ve been around this age group.
I feel a little bit like a behavioral science student dropped into an American middle school.
Every day I see something bizarre. I record it. Maybe they’ll be a book in it for me someday or the script for an art-house noir.
“Pencils of a Lesser God.”
“The Killing of a Graphite Holder.”
“The Maltese Ticonderoga.”
I’ve got the final scene in mind.
The grizzled teacher with a 5 o’clock shadow and 1,000-yard stare picks up a freshly sharpened pencil.
He feels it’s lightweight and has the perfect balance in his hand.
“What is it?” someone asks over his shoulder.
“The stuff dreams are written with,” the teacher says.
He slides the pencil into his breast pocket and walks to the hallway.
Middle school teacher Daniel P. Finney writes a column for the Marion County Express.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
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