A Pencil Saves the Day

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Even though I was not a newcomer to the routine, there was still something thrilling about holding a box of never-before used Ticonderoga pencils that made me feel deeply happy. It was a simple thing and it gave me great pleasure. Actually, it would not be exaggerating to say that buying these pencils even made me feel important. Twelve of my very own brand new pencils all standing perfectly still in the box, like soldiers awaiting orders during those first exciting days of school when they’d begin ten-months of active duty. A far cry from where they’d land at the end of the school year, reduced to a yellow stub with a worn-out eraser, only to be tossed out or to land up in the bottom of last year’s pencil holder shoved in the back of a drawer. Fifth grade seemed so much older than fourth. The classrooms were even on the top floor right down the hall from the sixth graders, instead of on the first floor sandwiched in between the kindergarten, second and third grade classes. The lowly first graders were relegated to the basement, next to the gym and the library. I loved the annual shopping for school supplies which was always in the afternoon of the first day of school, just hours after the teacher handed out a brightly colored mimeographed list of the required items. My mom and Gary, my younger brother, were in the car and we knew that ice-cream always followed the school supply routine. It was 1971, a simpler time, long before malls were in every town and before malls morphed into big box stores taking root in every population center across the land. Gorlans, the local candy store, was our destination. The door to the candy store had large bells on it to announce the arrival and departure of each customer. They might have been cowbells, although there were not many cows meandering through the grassy suburbs of Fair Lawn, New Jersey. The school supplies were stationed beyond the newspapers, comic books and magazines. There were some special magazines that were discretely placed behind the cash register. We were regulars and Gladys knew us all by first name.

Crayola crayons, markers, colored pencils, notebooks, pencil cases, sharpeners, three hole binders, dividers, and special spiral notebooks were added to the basket. It was important to follow the teacher’s precise instructions: three subject binders, one subject binders, remembering the required page count and size of the rules on the lines of the pages since this was a time when penmanship was taught along with content. I was always considered the “artist” of the family and spent a lot of time on the creative considerations of each purchase, weighing which color binder would be the right choice for English, Science, Math or History. My favorite decisions involved choosing text book covers and folders which provided an explosion of colors and cool psychedelic designs, or Gary’s favorite sports cars and rocket ships. Gary would be finished with all of his selections in about eight minutes flat. Then he’d grab a comic book – the latest Richie Rich or Archie and climb onto one of the red leather stools at the marble ice-cream fountain. Mom indulged me as I surely spent at least four times the time carefully choosing the supplies that would guarantee a successful school year. As I climbed onto my stool, I ordered my usual double scoop of chocolate chip mint and chocolate chip ice cream with a special splurge — chocolate sprinkles to acknowledge the first day of school. The teenager behind the fountain added the whipped cream and maraschino cherry on top for good measure. Mom had a coffee ice cream cone and we talked about our new teachers and the inevitable rotation of classmates as the Radburn School Administration tried to mix up the same ole sixty students into three different classroom configurations each year.

When we got home I’d spend another hour writing my name in bubble letters, the first of many doodles to adorn the surfaces of all of the notebooks and book covers. It started out like an ordinary Tuesday. Gary and I had breakfast and headed out the kitchen door cutting through our backyard, climbing over the fence, taking a short-cut through the Rosenbaum’s side yard, and walking the six blocks to school. After rising for the Pledge of Allegiance, our morning lessons were divided into five forty-five minute periods starting with History, Science and English followed by Social Studies and Art. When the final morning bell rang, we’d all line up at the front of the classroom as the hall monitors of the day stood at the front of the line escorting our classmates single file down the steps and outside through a pre-determined exit. We had exactly forty-five minutes to walk home, eat lunch and return to school. Although mom had completed grade school twenty-five years earlier, this quaint ritual of lunches enjoyed at home guaranteed that my mother’s days revolved around two perfectly calibrated three hour blocks of time. That afternoon during Math class, Miss Gordon began a unit on graphing. I secretly prayed that by being able to actually draw my math problems would somehow enhance my comprehension of math, my nemesis. Julie Davidson and Gretchen Krauss were handing each classmate a sheet of graph paper as if it was a sheaf of gold parchment. My box of new pencils was perched on the edge of my desk.

Miss Gordon invited Bruce Grundt to come to the front of the class to draw the first shape on a grid that sat on top of the overhead projector, a wicked invention whose fan never seemed to protect a student from touching its burning hot surface. I hoped Bruce would be careful so as not to injure his hands. Bruce moved to our town in fourth grade and was unanimously considered hot stuff based on his freckles, brown curls, un-self conscious laugh and, this is what really clinched it, the fact that he played the drums. I was mesmerized while Bruce used the red marker to place his dots on the grid and then he picked up the green marker to make bold lines, connecting the dots and transforming the formula 3b and 6a and 9c into an elegant triangle. I watched his every move – not only was he a way-cool musician, he was a math genius too. I was day-dreaming about our life together, imagining all of our curly haired, freckled mathematical musical prodigies who’d surely inherit my singing prowess and his perfect rhythm, when suddenly my desk started shaking. Steven, the boy sitting in front of me, started trembling in a forceful way. His chair was directly in front of my desk.

His moves were so strong that the back of his chair kept knocking into my desk, sending my pencil box and many of the brand new pencils cascading onto the floor. As I slid out of my chair to retrieve the pencils, I jumped back and hit my head on the bottom of the attached desk. Steven had fallen out of his chair and was thrashing on the floor. “Miss Gordon,” I called out, and she turned to face the class, dropped the special eraser for the overhead projector and fell to her knees next to Steven and me. “Lisa, hand me a pencil.” I knew what to do as I watched her put the pencil under his tongue while she scooped up his head and placed the sweater from around her shoulders under his neck. My knees were touching the top of his head, although I had only dreamt of running my hands through teen heart throb Bobbie Sherman’s hair. At that moment it seemed perfectly normal to stroke Steven’s head. It certainly was calming me down and giving me something useful to do. Miss Gordon was very calm. The room was totally silent, the only sound was the fan on the overhead projector. She spoke very slowly and deliberately without fear or alarm in her voice. She told the class monitors to run to the Nurse’s office immediately. She told the rest of the class to stand up and line up at the door and walk down the hall to Miss Serota’s class. Twenty two students stood up, walked to the doorway and filed out of the room without uttering a sound.

Witihin minutes, Ida Zuckerman, the school nurse, bounded into the classroom. She was completely out of breath and clutching her first aid kit. She gracefully dropped onto the floor as if she was making the winning run in a kick ball game while sliding into home plate. Steven’s eyes had rolled up into his head and he was still trembling. The nurse got out a needle while Miss Gordon opened the foil sealed cotton swab pre-soaked in alcohol. Miss Gordon dabbed his upper arm while Nurse Z. administered the injection. I turned away, embarrassed by my squeamishness for needles brought on by years of weekly allergy shots and an impatient, sadistic pediatrician who would unlock the bathroom door each time I tried to lock myself inside to avoid his jabs. I was reassured to see my fifth grade teacher and the school nurse taking care of a medical situation in such a quick and competent way. My brother had suffered many asthma attacks, so I knew how to handle myself in a scary medical emergency.

There were many times his inhaler didn’t do the trick and he had to be rushed to the hospital. I closed my eyes and prayed to God that Steven would be alright and made a special plea that no one would tease him or say something mean to him to remind him of this episode. Steven came back to school a couple of days later. Over the next seven years, he never had another epileptic experience in school. Later that week I stopped by Gorlans and bought a new pencil from the loose cup at the register. Gladys was behind the fountain, making someone a root beer float. She called over and told me to leave five cents on the counter. Although this new pencil had only missed two days of school, it had really missed a lot.