Pencil Me In

I remember when I was about seven my Aunt Mollie said to my mom, “You just never see Elliot without a pencil, do you?” She seemed pleased. I did find out later that, being a doting aunt in a Jewish family, she had hopes that her favorite nephew would one day be using his pencil, as Dr. Engel, to write prescriptions for wealthy, sick patients throughout Indianapolis. I bless her for never hinting to me, when I received my Ph.D. twenty years later, that I had bumbled into becoming the wrong kind of “doctor.” 

Aunt Mollie was certainly right about my pencil appendage. I fell in love with writing from the first time I saw my sister using that school-bus-yellow colored Ticonderoga Number Two. It was perfect. Its hexagonal-shaped body, with all those tiny ridges, made sure that it would not roll off a desk or table. The lead in it was the perfect texture: not too soft, which would have made the writing smudge, and not too hard, which would have made the point break off under pressure. The finely-grained cedar wood casing made it sharpen like a dream.

Imagine my surprise in seventh-grade science class when Mr. Grabbe was introducing a unit on minerals and asked us why graphite was the most common mineral used by students. Nobody knew. With a grin he said, “Because you’ve been writing with it since you were a child. It’s what’s inside all your pencils.”

It turns out that all lead pencils contain exactly 0% lead. They’ve always been graphite. The ancient Roman did use lead in his stylus to scratch letters on wax-covered tablets, but since then it’s been nothing but graphite. I believe it was that same year in seventh-grade phys-ed class, when I was bringing up the tail end of a running relay, that Coach Hobson shouted, “Get the lead out of those pencil legs of yours, Engel.” I considered telling him that technically I should be getting the graphite out, but I wisely decided to remain silent since such a clarification would only add to my nerdy, chatty, non-athletic reputation. 

And speaking of my bringing up the “tail end” of a relay, imagine my surprise again this time in a Latin class as an undergraduate, when Professor Ramage introduced a new vocabulary word from our week’s reading of Vergil: “Peniculus.” It means “little tail” and was used by Vergil in his Aeneid when describing a unique feature of the war-like dogs of the Assyrian Empire (dogs that we call “boxers” today).

He then held up a library pencil and showed us how it indeed looked like a little tail. Because this is a PG-rated essay, please do not expect me to reveal the Latin word for a regular-sized tail (well, OK, it rhymes with “VENUS”) and it is the root of our word “PEN”.

I’m of the generation of schoolkids who welcomed the Bic pen when it was first sold in 1958. Being a pencil lover, I noticed immediately that it had stolen the pencil’s hexagonal ridges that help stop it from rolling off a desk. But the cap was new, and I was impressed that the tiny hole in it not only stabilizes the air pressure, which interestingly keeps the ink from drying out, but it also prevents a child from choking to death if the cap were swallowed, since the hole prevents the cap from completely obstructing an airway. 

If you want to know the truth, the real reason I did not want to switch from a pencil was the absolutely delicious pleasure I derived from biting my pencils when I was nervous. And it sure quieted my mom’s “Quit biting your fingernails!” harangue, since I could enjoy this other bad habit all I wanted when I was in my room supposedly doing my homework, unobserved. I’m convinced that if my orthodontist’s office ever burned down, they could duplicate my bite impressions by examining my thoroughly gnawed pencils.

And, of course, no matter how popular pens became, they were unforgiving, as far as I was concerned, because they lacked a pencil’s merciful eraser. Oh, the freedom I felt as a child writer, knowing that no matter how awful or nasty was the thought that I’d just committed to paper (usually about my sister, if truth be told), I could make it vanish without a trace using my lovely rubber eraser. There was also the great satisfaction in blowing on the erased spot with gale-force breath and then watching the tiny eraser specks scatter onto the floor with a majestic sweep of my arm.

By the time I was in high school, some friends noticed my odd dependence on taking notes with a pencil. One friend was convinced that a pen was the faster, more legible writing implement. And so I was challenged to a writing duel. We were each given a paragraph to copy using our preferred writing instrument, to be later judged for neatness and speed.

The winner? Well, it was close, but I triumphed in the end with just a pencil-thin margin of victory.


Elliot writes: Do you remember the beloved late night show hosted by Johnny Carson? You probably remember that Johnny had the nervous habit of tapping his pencils while on-air. Legend has it that Johnny had erasers put on both ends, rather than any graphite, because he noticed that regular pencils left smudge marks when he tapped on his desk. 

Email Elliot at or click here.

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