Despite its versatility, few people respect the pencil. While we talk admire the permanence of ink, we use "pencil me in" with a certain sense of derision. It's temporary. It's gray. For all its graphite glory, it seems immanently practical and yet always tentative, always questioning, always mysterious, always meandering through shades of gray.
My students are at that age where the pencil becomes their own metaphor. Few of them can articulate it, but they relate to the medium itself. I watch students sketching pictures and delicately smudging the graphite in order to create value and texture and shading. A simple circle turns spherical. An abstract face turns fleshy. Perhaps I'm overstating the case, but my eighth graders embrace the power of to create and to destroy and to wander in this mystery while they still can.
A fourteen year old yearns for freedom and yet still clings to the safety of childhood. At one moment, she might be lashing out at the world and demanding autonomy and yet in the next, she is wounded by its darkness and crying in pain. This ebb and flow, this graphite confusion, is true of even the "best behaved" of the bunch.
It's permanent and temporary.
It's change, constant change, sometimes in smooth lines and sometimes in wild, dark jagged edges.
A first grade teacher pulls me aside and complains, "William was mouthy."
"I asked him why he was here and he said, 'We're all trying to find that out. Isn't that the point of life?' and so I asked him again and he gave me attitude again."
"So what did you do?"
"I told him that he couldn't have his pencil out during school."
"And he said that school was out and so I told him that he was still on school property and he said that school wasn't a place, it was the people and the ideas. Otherwise you wouldn't have to do homework, since the physical space doesn't hold any magical powers."
I laugh at this response. She shows me her Teacher Death Stare.
"What did you do next?"
"I told him that this was no way to talk to a teacher and that he can be paddled for it if we need to go there."
"I don't blame you for being angry. Eighth graders can be disrespectful. What she doesn't undrerstand is that their misbehavior often confuses themselves. They are moody, emotional and experimental. They are testing the boundaries of humor and social interaction. Everything in their world has gone from black and white to gray. They feel penciled in and a part of them embraces this change and yet each child is scared and lonely as well."
"I just don't get them. They can be so rude," she adds.
"The thing is that little kids are just as rude. They give unexpected hugs, ignoring the rules of space. They interrupt you when they are excited. Some of them still lack the ability to fart silently. And they yell in those squeaky little voices of theirs."
"But they can't help it. That's their age."
"Same with fourteen year olds. In a fourteen year old's mind, just about everything is temporary and everything is changing and honestly that's a major part of the disrespect. They want to be treated like kids and adults."
"I don't get it. It has to be one or the other."
It strikes me that I have been shaped by the students I teach. I embrace the mystery. I accept the duality. Somewhere deep within, I get the yearning for freedom. I've learned to navigate the comments and use them as a chance for student self-reflection.
On the other hand, she accepts the rules and embraces the structure and understands that the literal and the permanent are so necessary for life. In this moment, we fail to see one another. She's writing the world in ink and I'm sketching it out in pencil.