Yesterday morning, as I was getting dressed and thinking about my slate of meetings for the day, I decided to put a pencil in my pocket along with a pen. Normally, I wouldn’t devote any thought to this action, but as I picked up the very beautiful Parker Duofold I inherited from my father, I paused, and reflected on the significance of it.
My father was a science teacher by trade, and you might think that being a teacher, he wouldn’t have any ambivalence towards the humble pencil, which allows the holder to convey thoughts to paper, and to refine those thoughts through judicious use of the eraser. However, even my earliest memories of him helping me with my homework contain various echos of him complaining about my use of a pencil. When I grew older, I think when I was in junior high school, I asked him why he didn’t like using pencils. His response was typical for my father, who was a man of few words:
“Because the very act of using a pencil implies that you will make a mistake.”
Even then, I appreciated the brevity and confidence embodied in that simple sentence, but I didn’t share the sentiment. I could say that it was my own contrary nature, which is a trait which I can directly attribute to both him, and the paternal line of my family, and while it would be partially true, the more honest answer was that I reserved brash confidence for the things I was absolutely sure of, and my experience in school was that I still made mistakes.
As I grew older, and my education progressed, my confidence and skill both appreciated, but I never lost my affinity for the humble pencil. I used them for tests. I used them in drafting class. I used them in band. I used them when I wrote papers. And I used the eraser, right alongside, even if I used it less frequently as time wore on, without giving a serious thought as to why I did so. It wasn’t ever in the forefront of my mind until one of my first classes in law school when a professor made it clear to me why I still used a pencil, even as I rapidly and efficiently scrawled lecture notes in ink in pages of the notebook before me. He waited until everyone was seated and quiet, and like a performer, realizing he had the complete attention of his audience, he reached into his pocket, and pulled out a yellow No. 2 pencil, and held it above his head so that everyone could see it clearly. Without stopping to clear his throat, he announced to the quiet lecture hall “As attorneys, we think with these.”
To be completely candid, I couldn’t tell you what he said after that, because I was still absorbing his statement, and considering its implication. Suddenly, it became clear to me. I didn’t use pencils because I expected to make mistakes; I used pencils because any initial thoughts committed to paper can always be refined and improved upon.
And this, more than anything else, is why I still use pencils. Even now, when surrounded by the ubiquity of desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones, I often use pencils to make initial thoughts better. Pixels are nice, and the delete and backspace buttons work as well as any eraser, without need for replacement, or pesky soiled shavings, but they don’t have the same sense of timelessness, or feeling of gravitas that handwritten words, pressed into paper, seem to carry. A pencil is portable. It never needs to be plugged in. A virus can’t wipe out what you’ve written with a pencil. Malware cannot hold its work product hostage. I can use a pencil anywhere. I refine phrases and words, and increase clarity. I can use a pencil to distill ideas their bare essence. And I relish the promise and potential of a blank notepad and a pencil, as the anticipation of what might flow out of my mind and on to that paper builds slowly in my stomach and the small of my back.
I reflected on this journey of realization, as I regarded the beautiful mechanical pencil in my fingers, and then the question occurred to me: How is it that a man who rejected the implication implicit in the use of a pencil came to own such an ornate one?
I pondered it for a few moments, as my eyes drank in the sheen of the mother-of-pearl body, and the shine of the brass cap, which is engraved with his initials, KLW. And then it occurred to me. The eraser was under the cap, which is not at all easy to remove. It isn’t a writing utensil that you would use if you anticipated making mistakes.
Well played, Dad. Well played.