March 21st, 2016

My Kingdom for a Pencil

notebook-pencil-notes-sketch

My husband is a teacher. I am a writer. We homeschool. You might think it would be reasonable to expect to find a pencil in our household.

But don’t be silly.

Most weekdays in the Bean home begin with a mad search for writing implements of any kind.

My response to our chronic pencil deprivation is cyclic. I endure it until one day (usually after scribbling a phone message onto the gas bill with a fluorescent highlighter) I can stand it no longer. I make an emergency trip to Staples where I buy a case of yellow No. 2 pencils and throw in a few jumbo-packs of ballpoint pens for good measure.

I bring these home and put them into circulation. For a short while, it works.

Dozens of pencils sit, sharpened and ready, in a glass jar on the kitchen counter. I find pencils whenever I need them and even sometimes when I don’t – in the toddler’s pillowcase and in the refrigerator, nestled next to the mayonnaise.

Within a day or two, though, the house begins its pencil absorption. Supplies dwindle until eventually, I find myself right back in the miserable place where I started – where finding even a miniature nub with which to scratch out a grocery list requires a belly-slither through the dust bunny farm beneath the boys’ bunk beds.

And don’t get me started about scissors. Or tape. Or rulers for that matter.

The other day, my nine-year-old daughter Juliette’s schoolwork required the use of a ruler.

“Can’t find one!” she announced gleefully as she slammed closed the school cabinet and readied herself to move on to other things.

Unfortunately for her, I happened to know that there were at least three rulers in that cabinet less than a week ago. I knew this because I was the one who put them there – neatly on the top shelf, next to a new package of pencils.

I checked. Of course the rulers were no longer there. And neither were the pencils. There were sports cards and old gum wrappers. There were plastic pink rosaries and dried out markers. But no rulers. And no pencils.

These are the little things – like ancient water torture – that wear away at a mother’s psyche. Tiny drops of annoyance add up and threaten to send us straight through to insanity. When the nice young men with white coats finally come screeching up my driveway to straitjacket me and carry me away, I am pretty sure I will be mumbling something about invisible rulers, walking pencils, and disappearing scissors.

After years of suffering these kinds of annoyances, I have come to feel a great sense of solidarity with my father. When my eight siblings and I were growing up, he kept secret stashes of pens, pencils, lined paper, index cards, scotch tape, and super glue squirreled away in locked cabinets and dresser drawers. I am not sure even my mother was privy to his treasure’s exact location.

My father has accomplished many admirable things in his lifetime. He is a father of nine, a philosopher, an author, and a college professor. But one of his achievements that I have come to admire most is this: He chained a pair of scissors to a wall in the kitchen.

I distinctly remember being frustrated by the lack of mobility I got with those scissors as a child. It was hard to maneuver my way through elaborate poster board projects without being hampered by the chain.

Our childish complaints, however, fell on deaf ears. We could always find the scissors when we needed them, right? What were we whining about?

In an effort to preserve my own sanity the other day, I told Juliette that failure was not an option. We were going to look for a ruler until we found one.

And find one we did. We retrieved a blue plastic baby toy ruler from the musty bottom of the toy box. It rattles when you shake it. But it is a 6-inch ruler.

Juliette used it for her math work and left it on the table. After the kids finished their schoolwork and left the room, I examined the toy ruler more closely. I noticed that it happened to have a rather convenient-looking hole in one side.

So now, I am looking for a chain.

This is an old column of mine that originally appeared at Inside Catholic.

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