ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By
Joseph Walker

SILENCE OF THE ERASERS

I don’t know what possessed me to do it.  It just seemed like the thing to do at the time.

It was the first day of 5th grade, and Mrs. Stallings was distributing school supplies.  A handsome older woman of considerable dignity and poise, Mrs. Stallings had a way of making this routine procedure seem stately and ceremonial.

“You must take very good care of these materials,” she said pointedly as she placed a new box of Crayola Crayons (16 – count ‘em – 16 colors!) on each desk.  “They must last the entire school year.  If you lose them or damage them in any way . . .” – she paused for dramatic effect – “. . . you will need to replace them yourselves.”

I caressed the green and yellow box on my desk, gently opening the front flap so I could look at the brightly colored crayons with which I had been endowed.  Is there anything more lovely, more inspiring, more filled with untapped potential than a fresh box of crayons?  I pulled out my favorite color – blue – and studied its sharp-but-flat tip.  I wanted to begin using it immediately to color countless skies, bluebirds and blueberry pies.  At the same time I wanted to NEVER use it – to preserve it in all of its gloriously pristine waxiness.

Think of it as the 5th grade version of environmentalism.  Without the trees.

Mrs. Stallings then placed a new ruler on each desk.  As 5th graders, we could now be entrusted with the more mature rulers that had a thin strip of metal on the side to help you trace straighter, truer lines.  Of course, this meant the end of the ruler-sword fights we used to conduct regularly as 4th graders.  The thin metal strips on the sides of these new rulers had pointed edges that could actually be dangerous in a duel.  But we had outgrown ruler-sword fights.  We were 5th graders.  Somehow we were suddenly more interested in drawing straight, true lines.

And girls.  We were MUCH more interested in girls.

Finally, Mrs. Stallings brought two brand new No. 2 pencils to each desk.  I felt something almost spiritual as I ran my fingers up and down the smooth, yellow shaft of each pencil.  No tooth marks.  No chips in the paint.  And on the tip of each was a fresh, clean eraser.

As one who always had ample need for erasers, these held a special place in my 10-year-old heart.  I tweaked them.  They felt like good erasers.  I smelled them.  They smelled like good erasers (for the uninitiated, fresh, unused pencil erasers smell almost as good as Elmer’s Glue).

And then, for some unknown reason, I bit them.  Right there in front of Mrs. Stallings and everyone, I bit the erasers off the ends of my new No. 2 pencils.  Don’t ask me why.  To this day I can’t explain it.  One minute I was holding the pencils so carefully in my hands – savoring them, cherishing them – and the next minute I was playing Hannibal Lecter on the erasers.

“Mr. Walker!” Mrs. Stallings gasped.  “What on earth are you doing?”

Immediately, the attention of the entire classroom focused on me.  I could feel my face flush as I fidgeted on my suddenly way-too-hard desk chair.  My friends were laughing and the girls were giggling.  My mind raced as I struggled to come up with answers to two pressing questions: why DID I do it, and what do I do with these two rubbery eraser tips in my mouth?

Reflexively, I gulped and swallowed the erasers.  Then I smiled as brave a smile as I could muster.  “I guess I was hungry,” I said weakly.

Everyone in the classroom laughed – except Mrs. Stallings.

“Very well,” she said coldly.  “Now that you’ve had your lunch you won’t mind staying here in the classroom with me while the rest of the students go to the lunchroom.”

As a chubby kid for whom school lunch was the high point of the day, that was a tough punishment to take.  Even worse was her insistence that I use the two eraser-less pencils until they were no longer usable.  Whenever I needed an eraser I had to walk all the way up to her desk to borrow her joke eraser.  It was huge – about seven inches long and four inches wide, and it had these words printed on it: “For really BIG mistakes.”

Like mine – even though it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

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— © Joseph Walker

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Look What Love Has Done: Five-Minute Messages to Lift Your Spirit. 

"How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World."