I was reminiscing recently about getting ready for the first week of school as a kid. I remember being excited to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen all summer. And dreading I’d get put in Mrs. Biazevitch’s homeroom. I miss that odd mix of excitement and dread. As an adult, you only get excited about boring things like an unexpected tax refund, or your barista giving you a venti pumpkin spice latte but only charging for a tall. And any dread you feel usually involves super scary things, like a bad diagnosis, or a president who puts kids in cages, or mold.
But the thing I really miss about that “first week of school feeling” is buying No. 2 pencils.
For those who don’t know what a No. 2 pencil is (no judgment!), here’s the deal. A typical No. 2 is made of cedar wood, with a graphite core that’s sharpened to form a pointed tip. No. 2 pencils used to be called “lead pencils,” but that had nothing to do with the graphite. It was because pencils used to be painted yellow, and that paint contained lead. Lead paint was banned in the U.S. in 1978, when we realized it probably wasn’t a great idea to give kids a chance at poisoning themselves daily. Dreadcitement, indeed!
So why are they called “No. 2” pencils, you ask? The No. 2 refers to the hardness of the graphite core. The higher the number, the harder the core and the lighter the mark made by the pencil. That’s why No. 2 pencils have historically been used on exams, because the graphite leaves a distinct, dark mark.
Fun fact: the No. 2 has nothing to do with pooping, despite the fact that one time I asked Leonard Eaton if I could borrow a pencil, and he yelled to the class, “Jessica wants me to give her a No. 2!”
No. 2 pencils are amazingly versatile. Unlike pens, pencils can write underwater, upside down, and even in space. You can use the pencil’s cedar shavings to keep moths out of your sweater drawer. If you have a stuck zipper, just run the tip of a pencil over the zipper teeth to unstick it. And you can use them to keep your messy hair bun in place.
But the reason I love No. 2 pencils is for its less practical uses. For example, pencils were perfect for chewing on.
Maybe you gnawed on your No. 2 because you were deep in thought. Or maybe because you were stressed during a test. Or maybe because you had that devil-may-care attitude of all kids who grew up in the ‘70s and scoffed at lead-paint-induced death.
A chewed-on pencil also had the added benefit of grossing out your friend. Because nobody wants to be handed a piece of yellowed wood with baby teeth indentations on it.
Pencils also meant pencil fights.
This was a brutal rite of passage for every kid that usually ended in tears and several broken pencils. And occasionally a trip to the Nurse’s office. Which was still better than sitting in class listening to Mrs. Biazevitch tell us about her weekend spent making macrame owls.
But the greatest gift the No. 2 pencil gave you was the gift of avoiding schoolwork. When I was a kid, there were only two reasons you were allowed to get up from your desk: 1) to go to the bathroom, and 2) to sharpen your pencil.
Realistically, you could only get away with peeing once or twice a day. But you could “need” to sharpen your pencil at least a dozen times. Just press your pencil tip as hard as you could onto your desk and SNAP! Pencil sharpening time!
It was a guaranteed pass to mid-day classroom wandering! You’d amble toward the sharpener, making the wrong turn down a few aisles. Then you’d languidly sharpen your pencil for a good 30 seconds. Pausing here and there to check the tip. If you felt especially adventurous, you could “accidentally” stick your pinkie finger in the sharpener. A couple of quick cranks and you’re off to the Nurse’s office. Which might not be the best way to say “Suck it, Mrs. Biazevitch!” But at the very least, it’s a solid No. 2.