In search of a pencil sharpener

Sep 22, 2017 By Robert H. Peck, Staff Writer

Maybe you've heard this legend of the space race: the Americans, desperate to write in antigravity but thwarted by the ink in their pens rising away from the tip, paid millions of dollars and spent years developing a special pen that worked in space.

Meanwhile, the Russians used a pencil.

It turns out this isn't true. America used pencils as well at the start, and both space programs now use a special pen invented by Fisher (not NASA). But if those original space-faring, pencil toting agencies were looking to blast off from modern-day Iowa, they'd have a problem.

Nowhere in the state, as far as I can figure, does a single pencil sharpener exist.

I work for a university. Classrooms line my office halls. Printers and copiers and baskets of free pens are hidden in every nook. Down the street are two elementary schools, both the same. My city is home to 60,000 private residents, and 60,000 more live within 10 miles of downtown. There is a mall.

But there are no pencil sharpeners.

I know because I really needed one last week. I was taking a test out of town and needed to be prepared, and the test-makers only allowed pencils. I wanted to arrive with a dozen sharp leads ready to roll. I set out the morning before, understandably confident that what lay before me was a simple task, as simple as it gets: buy some new pencils, and find a sharpener for them.

I accomplished the first in minutes--the grocery store down the street was all too happy to provide many varieties and colors of pencils, including some that came pre-sharpened. I skipped those and went for the standard number twos, though. What kind of idiot pays extra for a sharpened pencil?

Heading in to my office to print test documents before I hit the road to the test site, I walked into the supply room and glanced at the wall by the door, where the pencil sharpener traditionally had been all through my elementary school years in Riverton. No dice. Odd.

I looked next to the tables, for an electric sharpener. Nothing doing there, either. I printed my papers, and walked down the hall to a classroom space, where I'd seen two dozen students taking notes the day before and had taught pencil-users in my own classes. Inside, the pencil sharpener was notable only for its absence. In this building that served thousands of college kids every day, there was not one sharpener in any public room.

I went upstairs to check my own office, which I share with a few others. Perhaps somebody had brought in a pencil sharpener for us to share. No, nobody had. Really perplexed now, I walked to the library a few blocks down. This space is open 24 hours a day and hosts five floors of quietly scribbling undergrads from dawn to dusk. On every level there is a supply station, with paper clips, staplers, and scratch paper. I checked them all. No pencil sharpeners.

Is it unreasonable to expect an R1 research university to have a pencil sharpener somewhere on its campus? Was I living in the Twilight Zone, with an eternity to sharpen and no way to do it?

Did we all become robots overnight and dispense with our need for written language? Could somebody please put a pencil sharpener somewhere, anywhere?

I drove to the public library.

The librarians were kind about it. No, they didn't have a pencil sharpener, and they weren't sure, but the print shop next door probably would stock them. That was fine by me; I'd buy one new at this point.

But the librarians were wrong. The print shop next door offered me mechanical pencils, which were prohibited for my test. Desperate, I took to the road one more time and went home, shook out my drawers, scrambled through them, only to find that even I was a conspirator: I had no sharpeners, either.

I went back to the store and bought the pre-sharpened pencils. They served me well on the test.

If you are a pencil enthusiast, please know that Iowa is in need of your charity. Nowhere in the whole place is there a pencil sharpener. If you have a spare, consider donating it to the less fortunate.

We're beginning to see why NASA wanted to use a pen.

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