Unsharpened Pencils – an essay by P Chatelain

UNSHARPENED PENCILS – by Phillipe Chatelain

For the longest I never wrote in pencil. It seemed rustic and was reminiscent of the naivety of third grade.

In third grade the chalkboard on the back right of the classroom had a chart where each row of students had a tally of their “points” for the week. When we answered questions correctly, the teacher gave us a certain amount of points. At first it was a simple tally. After a few weeks, the scores got so high that I saw some of the largest numbers I had ever seen on that board. Who knew that you’d need a second comma when counting?

I never really think back to third grade. To me it fell in the lull between a crazy second grade springtime when I lost my mother to cancer, and the crazy fifth grade year which introduced me to a nasty word: “terrorism.”

Teachers loved me in elementary and middle school. All the students from families with more than one child in the school were loved by the teachers for some reason. Being the oldest, I was the representative for my family—my brother and sister were not named, instead called “Phillipe’s-brother/sister.”

And, I mean, that was pretty cool. But what was REALLY cool was the third floor. The third floor meant we could use pens.

I realized when I got to the third floor of my school (the “upperclassmen;” read: sixth, seventh, eighth grades), that not only was there no point to this orgullo (pride; I have a bad habit of thinking in Spanish) of being able to use pens, but also that we were meant to be “role models,” too! Come on, now. How different were we, really, from just a year or two ago?

Needless to say, in our years as “upperclassmen” we got into a lot of trouble. We were a horror to substitute teachers, we only behaved in homeroom, and we had many “silent lunches” and punish assignments. But the biggest “privilege” we lost was the student body election of eighth grade.

My friend Matthew and I got really into the elections of 2004 and we wanted to bring that political awareness to our school. We launched the Junior Politicians Association and published JPA Weekly, much to the chagrin of our teachers who wanted just a simple year of elections. We typically sold our paper for 25 cents, to cover the cost of printing, mostly, and that’s kinda what got us in trouble. But for the most part we wanted to run it ourselves without the help of the school and that made them not want us to have it at all. As the date of student body elections drew closer, JPA started advertising the platform for me and my running-mate. It’s funny, now thinking back, that the school felt so threatened by our publication which possibly had a total of 8 issues and spanned just over two months or so. We were called in by the principal and the eighth grade teachers, basically telling us to cease and desist. At this point we dropped the print editions and took to advertising. Our biggest mistake.

Some JPA editors took advertising very seriously. If you think the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012 is getting ugly, you would have loved to see how JPA slandered the other tickets. I’m sure MS Paint had never been used so scandalously.

There’s really no story to it. They simply held an assembly and said that some of the other tickets had reported the flyers and the teachers said they were unauthorized. Because of that, we had no student body elections for the class of 2005. They called it a “privilege.” They said we lost the “privilege.”

We had stuck through pencils all through our scholastic careers at that school, getting to the third floor: the land of entitlement, responsibility, and pens. And just like that the teachers took it all away. They made it seem like we had to be role models when we came up there, and when we showed a little enthusiasm and initiative (if for the first time) we were shut down. It is almost as if we lost all our reputability as the upperclassmen, and were reverted back to long division and pencils on the second floor.

I don’t regret making JPA or even getting this “privilege” taken away. But it makes me think back at how schools can very easily stifle the dreams of young people in the name of discipline.

Much more recently, one of my professors in Madrid said this to us: “Educar es enseñar a impedir deseos.” (To educate is to show how to impede your desires.) I let the fresh thought linger in my mind after writing it down. For someone like me (who went to a private Jesuit high school on a full scholarship followed by an over-expensive private university), this incident with JPA is something that I can forget and move on to other opportunities. A “privilege” really. However, for many of my other Bronx homies from elementary school, JPA was something new and interesting to them. It introduced them to politics, publishing, propaganda, and personal opinion. So maybe, for them, it was an important part of their experience at school and an interest they’d have a hard time replacing. When the school took that away from us, I wonder how they came to this disciplinary conclusion. I think it stems from the fact that they consider this specific opportunity a “privilege,” as in “available only to a select or deserving group.” They decided that we didn’t deserve it.

If education is the hindrance or suppression of desires, does it presuppose that there are more important desires that require or deserve our attention? In other words, by Our Lady of the Assumption taking away the Class of 2005 student body government, did they think that it was an insignificant part of our experience that we could do without? Did they think we’d find a better use of our time? (Well, I did catch all 386 Pokemon in Ruby Version AND assembled a pretty beast Yu-Gi-Oh! Deck. Worth it.)

Realistically, you never know what opportunities are the ones that will actually “matter” in your life. And I disagree that opportunities should be considered to be “privileges.” That’s wrong. But, in retrospect, I wonder how many pencils OLA left unsharpened by that executive decision.

Long story short maybe In Parentheses is the new-age reincarnation of JPA Weekly. Let’s hope not.


Author: Mr. Phillipe

Phillipe Martin Chatelain / @uptownvoice / Phillipe is the Managing Editor of In Parentheses. He is a poet from New York City with a Masters Degree in Poetry from The New School. He writes as someone in the tradition of the urban troubadour or the flaneur–wandering, taking notes. He believes that poetry of our generation has taken on a much more digital definition. Furthermore, it is important for New Modernist writers like those exhibited in In Parentheses Literary Magazine to assume the forms of media available in order to carry on the history of Sublime Art. His series taking shots alone was self-published in 2012-2015. The self-published collection FACETS (2019) is now available.

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