In 2010, a student who we’ll call Darry made me a pencil sharpener.
Back when I was in school (which was slightly after the days of uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow, but still well before the internet) there were heavy duty, mechanical pencil sharpeners mounted in every classroom above the trash can. Most of them had that cool rotating wheel so that you could adjust for various pencil sizes. In my memory, they worked great.
I don’t know when those went away (or why) but by the time I became a teacher, electric pencil sharpeners were the thing. With a cheap plastic cover and a one-size-fits-all pencil hole, they were noisy annoyances that rarely lasted an entire school year.
I battled with those things my whole career. Some years, I tried to tune out the whirring buzz and teach over it. Some years I asked students to refrain from sharpening pencils except during breaks. Some years I told students to grow up and use a pen for goodness sakes. One year the pencil sharpener in the classroom next door broke, so the teacher started sending his kids over to use mine. The next year, I wised up, hid my fully-functioning sharpener in the closet and told my kids to go to his room. Nothing ever worked for very long.
Finally, during my eleventh year of teaching, I’d had enough. That year, none of the pencil sharpeners lasted more than a couple of months. They all died either by burn out (I felt for those) or from a student jamming something that was not a pencil into the opening. And even when they did work, they all did that annoying thing where they only sharpened the pencil on one side. (I am convinced there is an entire level of hell consisting only of pencil sharpeners that do that and rolls of tape that never peel off in one whole strip.)
That year, after three electric pencil sharpeners bit the dust, I gave up. I bought ten cheap plastic hand-held ones from Walgreens and put them in a bucket on the counter. There. Done.
Of course, I then had to listen to a nonstop stream of complaints. These don’t work. They’re messy. Why don’t you get a new electric one? But the whine of a pack of seventh graders was music to my ears compared to the dentist drill whine of a near-death pencil sharpener. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
And then came Darry to the rescue.
Darry was not a good student. He struggled to turn in his work and his impulsive behaviors created frequent distractions in class. Despite his faults, I liked Darry a lot. I could tell that he wanted to do well, and in one-on-one conversations he could be very sweet.
Darry’s skills were in his hands. Though at school his fingers were often busy tearing something up—hardly a day went by when he didn’t leave a broken pen or shredded pencil or pile of ripped up papers at his desk—at home he used them to create. He put together motorbikes and fixed electronics.
One day, Darry walked into class with a suspicious-looking black box with a cord sticking out of it. An electric pencil sharpener. He had made me an electric pencil sharpener.
It worked, and we used it.
I spent the last few months of the school year showing off my gift to half the people at work and hiding it from the other half. Despite its awesomeness, the homemade pencil sharpener did worry me a bit. I unplugged it every night before leaving and hid it in a cabinet during parent meetings, observations, and fire marshal visits. Sometimes it smelled a little funny, and more than once Darry had to tweak it to get it working again. The students respected this new addition to our classroom, never testing its powers on paper clips or crayons the way they did with the store-bought ones. And Darry was very humble about his creation—proud of it, sure, but quiet about it, never possessive or boastful.
Toward the end of the year, I had to retire our new friend. A couple of wires had become exposed and it had started to smell like a lawsuit. Darry offered to take it home and fix it, but I wouldn’t let him. Part of me feared he would fix it and then I’d be faced with the conundrum of deciding whether to use it or not. But part of me feared he wouldn’t fix it, and I’d never get it back. Darry’s electric pencil sharpener was the only one I’d ever loved and it was by far the coolest object any student had ever given me. I didn’t want to lose it.
I still have this gift. It sits in a box of teacher paraphernalia, but it doesn’t work anymore. Every time I sharpen a pencil I think about it. I guess I need to track down Darry, who’s a senior in high school now, and ask him to give it a tune-up.
[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]