CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- School is in session once again. This always reminds me of my long-deceased sister-in-law, Irene. Today, Irene would have been an unmarried professional educator. Years ago, when her career involved drumming essential skills into a class of elementary students, she was an old-maid schoolteacher.Today's parents have been busily assisting their offspring assemble the necessities of education in West Virginia: designer jeans, strange ensembles of outfits with underwear peeping out, exorbitantly priced boots and the latest in miniature computerized gadgets to ensure they will never be out of touch with their anxious, doting parents or the friend at the next desk.In the simpler times of Irene's day, they were buying chalk and erasers, crayons, paint boxes and construction paper and dull scissors with blunt ends.Classroom desks already came equipped with pens and inkwells, but, to my mind, the most essential item of all was the pencil! In these days of mechanical pens and pencils of every style and size, and the ubiquitous computer, I remain a faithful user and somewhat of an expert on wooden pencils with erasers.Irene was not only a thrifty soul, but she never threw anything away!
It fell my lot to clean out her four-story home after her demise. Along with drawers full of carefully folded sheets labeled "Torn -- do not use," I inherited innumerable pencils and other useful school supplies. Being a thrifty soul myself, a member of the "Waste not, want not" generation, I set about using them up. It took me 12 years to reach the end of her Scotch tape, but the pencils linger on.
Wooden pencils know they are a dying breed and are defensive to the point of paranoia. Tuck a pencil in your bag along with a crossword puzzle to while away the interminable wait in your doctor's office and, when you pull out the latter and start to look for the pencil, it is gone!A pencil's brains are in its eraser, as is its homing instinct. Elderly pencils with their original, hardened erasers, the victims of arterial sclerosis, are less likely to elude your search. Frequently, if you empty every single thing from your pocketbook, you will find one lurking behind a bit of lining.Elderly pencils, which have had an "eraserectomy" (a rubber "brain" replacement), are much more elusive. Many of them do not simply vanish. They find their way home! When you return, tired and cranky with your pristine puzzle, there they are waiting on the table by your door.Short pencils, weakened by age and reduced to stub size, are quite likely to abandon defensive hiding and stoically face the day when they will be relegated to kitchen shopping-list duty or finally discarded.But it is difficult to throw out a long-used pencil. It is an old friend. It is easier, if not perhaps kinder, to simply banish it to a the back of a drawer, where it will find many aging retired companions among the bridge score pads and no-longer-active playing cards.Dorothy Wehrle Dixon of Charleston may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.