Sharpening pencils

There are days I feel that my role as coordinator for the volunteer tutoring program at a city school can be summed up in one task: pencil maintenance. A large part of the job is making sure that tutoring stations are well-stocked with paper, books, crayons, up-to-date student information, tissues, hand-sanitizer and pencils. Pencils in good-working order. Pencils with useable erasers. Pencils with sharp points. That I have worn out two portable, battery-operated pencil sharpeners in the past three years is a testament to the importance of maintaining working pencils for the volunteers and students.

The tutoring program goes through well over 300 pencils during the school year. Many “walk away” to be used elsewhere, some break and meet an untimely end, and others are used until they are too short to sharpen. Additionally, knowing that pencils are always in short supply among the students at this school where the poverty rate is now 100%, the tutoring program gives a pencil to each of the tutored students three times a year. That is approximately 345 pencils three times a year: once in December with a holiday gift, once in February vacation book bags, and again in their summer vacation book bags in June, totaling over 1,000 pencils.

When I make my weekly rounds, tidying and restocking tutoring stations, the whirr of the pencil sharpener has often signaled my presence to teachers and students. Teachers will take that time to check in, exchange updates on scheduling, wish-lists for field trips and supplies, and information about students’ needs. Passing students will ask to help sharpen a pencil, give me a quick hug, tell me about their day, request help with a shoelace and ask whether it is their turn to “go with me.” Every one of them treasures their time with the tutors.

As the program has evolved since 2010 to include students in every 1st and 2nd grade classroom, I have had to institute more of a pencil-exchange program rather than a sharpen-as-I-go plan. Fire codes in those hallways require that the 1st and 2nd grade tutoring stations be in the classrooms, so to avoid disrupting the classes in session I forego the sharpening on site and instead exchange sharp pencils with ample erasers for dull pencils, broken pencils, and pencils on which the eraser is worn down to useless. I take the used-up pencils home, sharpen those that can be sharpened on a sturdy old rotary sharpener, put new pencil cap erasers on those that need them, and throw away those that are not salvageable.

According to one of our state’s Department of Education statistics, 50% of the children from households living in poverty are unable to write their own names upon entering Kindergarten. This creates a giant hurdle for these children. Students that cannot write their own names are less likely to know how their names are spelled or how to form the necessary letters. Every year this is the tutor’s first lesson with many of the Kindergarteners, and it is repeated and repeated again until it is learned, wearing down sharp points of pencils in the process. Knowing that, pencil maintenance seems as grand as kingdom of heaven work, signaling to volunteers and students that the tutoring program supports their efforts by providing ample tools, sharpened and ready for the work at hand.

Of course the role of program coordinator is much more than pencil maintenance. Scheduling, book-buying and book-management, and a myriad of other tasks are part of the job. Some tasks I expected, some I did not. For example, in the past three years, there have been several funerals to attend; one for a Kindergartener, one for a beloved teacher, and a handful more for volunteers and their loved ones. There have been less obvious requirements too. One recent Monday morning, I comforted a teacher as she cried for one of her students. The child’s grandmother had dropped her off that morning, letting the teacher know that the girl was living with her now, and that her mother had left. This girl, bright, anxious to please and starved for attention, with no father in her life and from now on, no mother. Just one of the many times I have been at the school to check pencils only to be called to do much more than pencil maintenance.

In about a month the 2012-13 tutoring season will end. Soon the Kindergarteners will take their annual field trip to a farm, the 4th graders will enjoy their visit with from a nearby 19th century village and museum’s interpreter, and the 1st graders will head to the local zoo for a day. Volunteers will pack approximately 1,725 books, along with 345 new pencils, into 345 vacation book bags to support continued literacy over the summer. Kindergarteners will celebrate the end of their first year of school, inviting family members, school staff and tutors to share with them in an exuberant ceremony followed by cookies and juice. And all of the tutoring materials at the school will be moved back to a church basement for clean-up, inventory and storage, preparing for the 2013-14 tutoring season that begins in October. And I? I will be done with pencil maintenance and leave this deeply rewarding job.

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About pattiblaine

Raised under the name of Snyder in the upstate NY town of Vestal, I've worked as a typesetter, a fast food salad bar tender, an art reviewer, a waitress, a part-time nanny, and a very-bad-with-phones temp. Once upon a time I was all-but-thesis toward a Masters in Art History. Now I'm just a mom with a lot of fiber squirreled away throughout the house. We call it insulation. In 2013 I completed a life-long learning program at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, and am a postulant toward the diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, NY. In addition to coordinating volunteers for the soup kitchen, I volunteer as a tutor at a deeply impoverished city elementary school, and am a docent at the Memorial Art Gallery.
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4 Responses to Sharpening pencils

  1. i once was one of those students, for whom a free pencil was a godsend. I never realized how poor we were as a child, but your essay is a reminder. A 10 pack of pencils was purchased every fall… but by age 10, those 10 pencils were divided among 5 children.
    My children are sometimes dismissive of my inability to pass by pens and pencils in a store. But a joy of my teen age years was WORK and being able to buy a pens and pencils. To have pen with ink, to have pencils(i have a display cut with 20 sharpened pencils on the far side of the desk, right now) at hand, to not have to think too much or too hard where to find one when i need one. I don’t use pencils often, but it comforts me to know I have this ‘richness’.
    I was lucky enough to have people like you in my life. People who made sure there were enough pencils for me to learn to write, and to do my sums, and to fill notebooks with marble covers with words.
    I hope those who come after you are as diligent. It does matter.

  2. Andrea Maier says:

    Patti Blaine, you are a gem to and from this humanity. “50% of the children from households living in poverty” brought to mind the state of public schools in LA. 80% of students’ families live in poverty. Having no hope at this is tempting, indulgent. (“Lead us not into temptation.”) You shine, and volunteers and educators. Bless you. You verklempted me.

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