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Columnist Peyton Poitras writes on the age old classroom question of 'pen or pencil?'

Pencil or pen? It is an age old question: one simple in nature, easily dismissed, and ever evolving. A quick glance around an average classroom brings about 3 overarching categories: pen, pencil, and keyboard. Of course, the typers can only get so far — despite this being the digital age, teachers love their hard copy worksheets. As such, the pen versus pencil debate persists. COURTESY PHOTO - POITRAS

This debate is one I've been on either side of. In my early days, I was a hardcore wooden pencil fan. Each year the book fair took over our humble library. Grips, toppers, and accessories of all shapes and sizes graced the checkout lane. Highly coveted and tradeable, these add-ons sought to improve the minimal wooden pencil. Rather than carry a separate eraser, eraser toppers made sure that we were able to easily erase ill formed letters or incorrect algebra, to learn and move on. These accessories, however, liked to fall off and eventually became a nuisance. Labels and personally engraved options designed online, on the other hand, were a must.

When scented pencils hit the market, us elementary schoolers went nuts; a ban was placed on them, prohibiting them from the classroom. That was the final straw. The once preferred writing utensil lost its wow factor.

Thus came mechanical pencils. Alien objects, their use is perpetual. No more standing in lines to use the grumbling monster of a sharpener, no more mid sentence pauses. The letters started off uniform but bulky — 0.7 mm lead training wheels avoided breakage. Like a karate student going from white belt to black, precision became all the greater with time — 0.3 mm is choice for the faint of hand, but not the faint of heart. The only drawback of these tools were their erasers, for in order to replace the lead one must manually take the eraser first. As such, when an eraser gets worn down, the pencil itself becomes useless. White, polymer erasers became staples during these years.

Potential friends became enemies when prized possessions, aka these pencils and their eraser companions, were loaned out but never returned. Grudges made here in middle school may still be seen as scars, as a sense of apprehension and distrust. Mechanical pencils were replaced not by like items, but by pen. This tool is often required for final drafts of projects, but pencils are utilized for scantrons and tests. Using ink for everyday notes seemed daring at first — mistakes were highlighted by puddles of ink and dramatic slashes. Over time, the idea of pen became less outlandish. This is due to AP exams, for although they require wooden pencil marks for the multiple choice, they require pen for the written portion of the exam. As such, practice with ink became a necessity — AP test day was not the time to realize how many careless mistakes one makes when writing with the comfort of an eraser.

Pens have adapted to the modern age in more ways than one: smudge proof, waterproof, and erasable now grace their packaging. With a rainbow of colors, everyday notes look like something straight off of a social media spread. Mistakes are not scratched out in puddles of ink, nor scrubbed to the point of oblivion. Rather, they are momentarily embraced, erased, then replaced — as if it never happened.

But it did happen; we are human, after all. Whether a gray streak of graphite erased by polymer or a black mark smudged away with friction, their shadow remains in the mind of the beholder. That is not a bad thing though. Erasers give us the power to adapt, to improve our work with time. Gone are the days where pencils were toys, with focus on the outside rather than the graphite inside. Now, whether it be pen or pencil, these tools are utilized for jotting down tidbits of information: facts, statistics, innermost fears and hopes. They are used for self expression, and our sense of self may change over time — that is why erasers exist. Not to ignore our mistakes, but to move on from them and grow.


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