When I was in elementary school, there was a pencil sharpener attached to the wall in our basement. Why my father screwed the silver, metal, hand-cranked sharpener there I don’t recall, except that I played school in one room of our big cellar and maybe he thought I’d need it.
For years, on the first day of school, I would come home, run down the steps, two or three yellow No. 2’s in hand, and grind them each to a dagger point, blow off the tiny shavings and carry them to the desk in my bedroom, where they were positioned as soldiers ready for battle with math and English homework. The woody smell of those yellow wands has always been one of my favorites. It’s a scent of fall, as distinct as colorful leaves clustered on a forest floor, smoke from a firepit and sage stuffing baking in the oven.
The thought of them makes me miss school more now that fall is so close — and I have missed it deeply since closures began in March.
Just as the pandemic began, I had started teaching a short-story writing course at Wor-Wic Community College, where I’ve been an adjunct since 2003. It was a six-week class with a robust enrollment of about 15, just the right size for breaking into smaller groups for creative projects, then coming back together for discussion.
When I walked into my classroom that evening, there was a big bottle of hand sanitizer on my desk, a container of disinfectant wipes, paper towels, can of Lysol spray and waste basket twice as big as usual. It wasn’t a good sign. A day or two later, the class was canceled. And I have yearned to be there.
I miss the classroom, the way students arrive the first night eager and a little nervous, with clean notepads and pens just released from their plastic packaging. Some always go for green ink; others are prone to purple. They apologize for not remembering much from high school English. I take roll, then play a little game with them, asking them each to find a descriptive adjective that begins with the first letter of the first name. Mine is Sweet Tooth Susan. There’s evidence of that in the Kit Kat candy bar wrappers in my bookbag.
Then, beginning at one end of the room, the first student might say, “Good evening. I am Jovial Julia.”
The next student will say, “Good evening, Jovial Julia. I am Gracious Grace.”
We continue until the last student in that popular seat in the back row has the duty of greeting everyone, remembering both the adjectives and names. They make mistakes. They bite their lips and glance at the ceiling. They try to discreetly scribble names on their hands. They encourage each other. Everybody laughs.
And I miss it.
We talk about how to craft characters for short stories, assign names that relate to personalities, come up with storylines, use symbolism, build to a climax, banter about how to take the reader by the hand, draw him into the story and keep him with us all the way through. Philosophy of writing is discussed and philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s admonition, “Should you care to write (and only the saints know why you should) you must needs have knowledge and art and magic — the knowledge of the music of words, the art of being artless, and the magic of loving your readers.”
I miss that atmosphere of thought, discernment, exchanging ideas. The classroom, with the squeaky markers that are always low on ink and white boards that have replaced chalkboards — much to my disappointment — is the sanctuary of deliberation, where the likeminded and indifferent speculate and reflect, where ideas are churned, accepted or rejected.
Not being able to gather with students for stimulating discussions has left a void. I miss correcting papers, critiquing, making suggestions, encouraging, reminding them again and again that the pronoun “its” does not have an apostrophe, reviewing when to use “lie” and when “lay” is correct, convincing them to learn the seven coordinating conjunctions.
When that proverbial lightbulb brightens their eyes and they feel good enough about their abilities to compose a story that absorbs every classmate, we have all succeeded.
“Education breeds confidence,” Confucius wrote. “Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”
School has been absent from our lives for months. I am eager to go back. When I do, maybe, if it’s my lucky day, there will be a Kit Kat bar in the vending machine on my floor.