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To Sharpen a Pencil

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“If anyone needs to sharpen their pencils, please do so now.”

Every single student in the room suddenly went silent, waiting with bated breath. The very air of the classroom was heavy with anticipation. Students were glancing around the room furtively, trying to see who would dare to rise to this challenge, but no one moved. My eyes dropped to my own tattered pencil. Half of it was already gone, sharpened away. The golden paint was peeling off, revealing coarse wood underneath. The bright pink eraser had a big bite taken out of it. And the tip… the tip was woefully blunt. The fine, sharp point that I had so painstakingly created this morning was already worn down to a stub.

My heart began to pound incessantly in my ears. The entire class seemed to be focused only on me. “They’ve noticed,” I whispered to myself. “They’ve noticed my pencil!” I felt feverish at the thought of getting up alone to sharpen it. There were too many eyes on me! What if something happened? What if the teacher began talking the moment I moved? What if I tripped and everyone laughed at me? But I had to do something. I couldn’t take this test, this all-important semester final exam, without a properly pointed pencil! I just had to grit my teeth and do it. I had to do the inevitable and face the consequences. I was going to sharpen my pencil.

My legs were shaking as I tried to kick my chair back from the desk. It wouldn’t budge. The carpet was grabbing at my chair legs, as though it was saying “Don’t do this! Don’t do this!” But one look at my woebegone pencil strengthened my resolve. Even if I didn’t want to do this for myself, I had to do it for my poor, battered writing utensil.

With difficulty, I rose and squeezed out of the gap between my chair and the desk. My feet found the floor and I steadied myself. Then I remembered my pencil. I gingerly picked it up from its place beside my answer sheet and clenched it tightly around the middle. I stood for a fraction of a second, looking around at the rest of the class. Every single eye was trained on me unblinkingly. I looked at the teacher, and she too was watching me expectantly. I hoped she wasn’t going to start talking any time soon, because it was now or never.

I set off walking as fast as I could to the other end of the room. I put one foot smoothly in front of the other, thinking only “I can do this. I have to do this.” The tapping of my shoes on the densely packed carpet coincided with the pounding of my heart against my chest. The students’ eyes followed my progress. Whispers broke out, hissing across the classroom. I couldn’t hear what my classmates were saying, but I got the feeling they weren’t just silently reviewing for the test. They were watching me like I was a reality show; everyone was waiting to see whether I would do something stupid. I picked up the pace, feeling as though I was floating towards the tiny black shelf by the door that bore two bright blue pencil sharpeners.

Hulking backpacks inched their long straps towards my feet, hoping to send me hurtling to the musty floor. Sly, sneaky little lunch boxes tried to conceal themselves behind the thin, cold desk legs, but I dodged them all. Fortunately, I made it across the classroom without any serious mishap. I turned my back on the class and the teacher, focusing only on the task at hand. The little shelf was crammed full of textbooks and odd papers piled in a jumbled heap. There was a heavy globe perched on the top shelf, tilted precariously. I held my arm quite awkwardly, not quite up and not quite down, as I reached forward. Just as I was about to jam my pencil into the sharpener, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a hand fly into the air. I panicked. It was extremely rude to sharpen a pencil while someone was talking. If anyone asked a question now, I might never get my chance! I turned my head just enough to see the teacher’s reaction. Her mouth seemed to open in slow motion. When she spoke, her words resounded throughout the classroom. “Yes, Jean, what is your question?”

Jean! Jean Thomas! That girl had always had it in for me! Why did she have to ask her question now, at this crucial moment? She knew that I was about to sharpen my pencil. She knew how uncomfortable I was already feeling. When I looked at her face, I could see a faint trace of smugness in the upturned nose and arched eyebrows. She had done this on purpose!

I whipped my hand back from the pencil sharpener and accidentally smacked the globe, nearly sending it spinning to the floor. My heart leapt out of my chest as I thrust my hand out and steadied it, hoping no one had noticed. But when I looked back, at least three people had their hands over their mouths or their hearts. I grimaced. So much for not making a fool of myself. I held the wobbling globe between my hands as Jean opened her mouth to ask her question.

“Mrs. Ward,” she began, glancing over at the corner where I was standing. “I was wondering what the difference was between an animal cell and a plant cell. Could you please explain it to me?”

Such an easy, obvious question! A toddler could have answered it! She was doing this just to get my goat, I knew it. I waited by the shelf, pulling what I hoped was a mask of imperturbable calm onto my face. Mrs. Ward seemed to be contemplating how best to answer the question without giving away anything on the test. Finally, she just shook her head, giving up. “I’m going to give you all a freebie!” she announced. “A plant cell has chloroplasts, a cell wall, and vacuole. Animal cells don’t have any of these things, but they do have another organelle which I won’t name right now. But remember, plant cells do have mitochondria.”

Then, Mrs. Ward turned her head and looked right at me, but it felt as though she was looking right through me. I could somehow tell that she sensed exactly how I felt about waiting to sharpen my pencil, but she appreciated me for standing patiently and not making a sound. Behind her, Jean’s smugness was more pronounced than ever. I could tell she was immensely enjoying her little game.

“Okay, honey,” Mrs. Ward said kindly, “you can sharpen your pencil now. Thanks for waiting so patiently.”

I gave a stiff nod and gritted my teeth. The rest of the class still hadn’t moved. That was the worst thing about sharpening a pencil before a test; no one ever had the nerve to do it. We all felt the same awkward self-consciousness at being the only person in the room to sharpen a pencil. All the eyes were trained back on me now. My poor pencil was in an even worse state; I had unconsciously been chipping at the paint with my fingernails as I stood. I braced myself for the earsplitting racket I was about to make, but I couldn’t make myself or the rest of the class wait any longer.

I took a deep breath in and jabbed my blunt pencil into the machine on the left. Nothing happened. I yanked the pencil out and jammed it in again, but still no sound. Anxiously, I glanced over my shoulder again. They were still staring at me, the hungry lions, waiting to pounce as soon as I made a mistake. My palms were really sweating now, and with difficulty I pulled the pencil back out and shuffled sideways until I was directly in front of the sharpener on the right. I took one more deep breath and thrust my pencil into the hole.

Immediately, the machine whirred to life. The torrent of noise cleaved through the silence like an axe through a block of butter. It was the sound of jackhammers boring into concrete, fingernails scraping across a chalkboard, power drills eating holes in a thick slab of wood. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that my classmates were wincing along with me at the awful grinding, screeching, and whirring. Some had stuffed their fingers in their ears, but I could not do so. It was all I could do not to drop my pencil, which was shaking madly in my hand. If at all it was screaming, the sharpener’s ruckus drowned it out.

With a final groan, the machine came to a shuddering halt. The pencil in my hand stopped vibrating and lay still. I tugged it out and rolled it over in my fingers, examining it. The eraser still had a chunk taken out of it and the paint was still cracked, but the tip was brand-new, shining black graphite. The sharpener was silent again, looking all innocent, as though it had not just tortured a pencil to near death. Satisfied with the results, I spun on my heel and faced the expanse of classroom I had yet to cross.

All I had to do was walk to my desk and slip into my seat. I put one foot forward, then another. Twenty-six pairs of eyes were following me back across room. With my next step, twenty-six pairs of eyes followed me straight to the floor.

I felt weightlessness in my stomach, followed by a tugging sensation coming from underneath my shoe. The next second, I was sprawled face down across the floor, dragging my elbow across the carpet. There were gasps and some giggles all around me, but I didn’t want anyone else to embarrass me by helping me up. In a flash, I pushed off from the ground and sprung to my feet, dusted off my shorts, and ran the last few steps to my desk, followed by muttering and more giggles until I slipped back into my chair.

Once safely back in my seat, I looked around the classroom, trying to find who or what had tripped me. But there were no legs sticking out from under desks, no backpacks, lunchboxes, or notebooks lying in ambush. I was about to curse my stupid clumsiness when I heard a faint clinking sound coming from underneath me. I looked down to see the aglet on my left shoelace hitting against the desk leg. So my shoelace had been the culprit; my own shoelace had betrayed me! I sighed and cursed my rebellious shoes as Mrs. Ward started handing out test papers. I could tie my shoe later. Right now, I had a test to worry about. Mrs. Ward placed the sheet in front of me. I picked up my newly sharpened pencil, rolled it in my fingers, and began to write.

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