Using the pencil sharpener

I heard an interesting story this week. It came from a school district in a different town. A parent was volunteering to help in the classroom. The parent is well educated and has a wide variety of skills, in fact that parent is the administrator of a tightly-recognized educational program. However, the task assigned to the volunteer parent was to sharpen pencils. It is a bit of an outrage that this particular combination of school and teacher squanders the resource of parent volunteers but I was struck by something else. Why does any adult need to sharpen pencils? I thought that sharpening pencils was the responsibility of the student. I clearly remember that there was a pencil sharpener in each classroom of the elementary school I attended. From the first grade, we knew that having our pencils sharpened and ready for use was our responsibility. We had to have a spare because if we broke a lead during class we wouldn’t be allowed to sharpen our pencils until a break such as recess or lunch. I can clearly remember a similar policy towards sharpening pencils when our children were elementary students. One time our daughter was corrected by her teacher because she was focused on helping a classmate sharpen a pencil when she should have been doing her own work. I was told by the parent volunteer that students weren’t allowed to use pencil sharpeners un=supervised. Some teachers kept electric sharpeners on their desks and allowed students to use them when the teacher could watch. Other teachers simply didn’t have pencil sharpeners in the room and sent parent volunteers down the hall to sharpen 30 or more pencils at a time.

I’m concerned that a school doesn’t think it is capable of teaching students to use a pencil sharpener safely. I wonder if the little plastic sharpeners that we all used to keep in our pencil boxes are now deemed to be unsafe contraband in student desks.I never had one, but I had classmates that had special sharpeners for their crayons. Some were built into the crayon box itself.

A pencil sharpener is pretty easy to learn to operate. Because a pencil is smaller in diameter than a finger, it is pretty hard to injure oneself using one. The biggest danger I can remember from using a pencil sharpener is that the container for the shavings would get overfilled and when you went to empty it, some could spill on the floor. That gave an other opportunity for teaching as we learned how to clean up our messes.

Our education was imperfect and incomplete. Many of the facts of history were left out of the curriculum. Our math skills weren’t as advanced as is the case with elementary students these days. We weren’t exposed to much cultural diversity. Although we were children of the space race and science and engineering were receiving attention in public schools, we didn’t have access to organized STEM or STEAM curricula. We spent hours practicing cursive writing, a skill that is not routinely taught in public schools these days. We did quite a bit of simple calculating by hand and by head instead of using calculators. We suffered punishments that weren’t appropriate and weren’t always fairly administered, though I’m pretty sure that I received no permanent injuries from being smacked with a ruler.

But we did learn to operate a pencil sharpener. I’m pretty good at it today. I generally use the old-fashioned hand crank model instead of the electric one in our church office. Don’t worry, though, it is mounted at adult height and none of the students in our preschool can reach it, so I’m pretty sure we’re in alignment with current safety standards.

I told the parent volunteer who told me this story that the whole situation might have started with my mother. One day, shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, she was boarding a plane. She was more than 80 years old at the time and she was a fairly small woman. The TSA inspectors found and confiscated a small plastic pencil sharpener in her carry on bag. They told her that it would be easy for a criminal to take a small screwdriver, remove the blade and use the blade to injure another person. Never mind the fact that the blade in a pencil sharpener is only about a half inch long and that my mother did not possess the fine motor skills to disassemble one at that point in her life. I’m guessing she would be far more dangerous had she thrown the whole bag at someone than if she were to try to use a pencil sharpener as a weapon. We laughed about the story later. The loss of the pencil sharpener didn’t set her back financially, and we assured her that we could replace it. In fact she turned into a bit of a rebel, carrying a pencil sharpener with her on each subsequent flight. She was never stopped or had another pencil sharpener taken from her again.

I can remember when merry-go-rounds and swing sets began to disappear from school yards. When our children were in elementary school we raised money for new outdoor play equipment for the school that adhered to the then-common theory: “The equipment stays still, the children move.” We found funding for interesting climbing structures and tubular slides and other equipment that was designed with an eye to the safety of the children who played on it. It seemed like a good idea at the time, though I knew I would miss the swings that would let you go so high and so fast. Still, a classmate of our grandson when he was in kindergarten last year climbed up a structure, hung by his knees and fell breaking his arm. The injury wasn’t too severe, but he did miss a couple of days of school and spend a few weeks with a cast on his arm. It didn’t seem to slow him down very much.

We can’t isolate our children from every risk. We really should be intentional about teaching them safety skills. I’m thinking pencil sharpeners might not be a bad place to start.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!