I spent an unstrategically long time during my Race and Ethnicity in American Politics exam thinking about Nicholas-Jacques Conté. Even though I had no way to know how many minutes I had left to finish the test because my insecure professor watched too many movies about teachers who are tough but fair and won’t allow us to keep phones on our desks and who really wears a watch anymore anyway?, I couldn’t help my mind drifting to the French inventor. Upon cursory research, it turns out my world history teacher was wrong and Conté didn’t invent the pencil so much as invent modern pencil lead five years after a guy in Austria did the same thing. But at the time, when I was trying to remember the median household income of Asian-Americans, I blamed him for the torture implement wedged in between my fingers.
In addition to pencil lead, Conté also pioneered balloon warfare. So clearly the guy was full of brilliant fucking ideas.
Up until this exam, I had not written with a pencil since my SAT. In an act of inexplicable arbitrary cruelty, my professor requires that we use pencils to write our essays in class. He has, to my knowledge, not attempted to explain this decision. The structure of the exam requires the examinee to try to string as many references to the readings as possible into a somewhat coherent framework. There are four compound questions, you have one hour and fifteen minutes. You must write in pencil. Halfway through the second question, the friction causes a cut on my fourth finger to open and as I rotate the stick in my hand I coat the exposed wood in an even layer of blood. Fuck you, Nicholas-Jacques Conté.
Writing with a pencil after writing with a pen for years is like being asked to write in crayon. The lead, even after being freshly sharpened, quickly turns dull. Normally neat handwriting becomes childlike, possibly so defined because we force children to write with pencils. The ability to erase is poor compensation for the loss of the smooth glide of a ball-point across a page. Writing over erased words is unnerving; I always feel like I’m desecrating a cemetery, paving over graves in order to replace the dead. The discarded thoughts live on in their ghostly imprints, making the new words look nervous.
It’s important to remember that when you write with a pencil, you scratch clay and rock against paper and read the debris.
Pencils require constant maintenance. Sharpening pencils is archaic, a tradition that lives on because we don’t trust children with ink. The pencil produces trash often, unlike pens which create trash only when they are completely spent. There is no need to care for a pen. The mechanical pencil is no excuse, it is a modernization of something that should no longer exist, like a VCR with an iPod dock. The lead advertises its thinness and breaks with the smallest pressure, leaving me afraid I will poke a hole in the paper. A pen requires one click to engage, a mechanical pencil requires continual clicking. Is there anything worse than continual clicking?
I begrudge artists nothing, but I also refuse to write essays with a paint brush.
Ultimately the children must defeat the pencil. We want them to have a reverence for the idea of permanence (e.g. the myth of the permanent record) and so they must be kept away from permanent ink. They must be made to know that mistakes must be erased and hidden, that the final product matters more than the process. It makes me crazy to see kids who panic when they make mistakes, as if one left uncorrected would set the universe off its intended course. Of course the ink is not permanent and neither are the records or anything else, and the sooner we are okay with kids knowing that, the sooner we can escape the tyranny of Nicholas-Jacques Conté.