Part I: The point of a pointless pencil

Trigger warning: the topic of this post involves helping a child with math homework.

It was one of those perfect storm situations, occurring directly after I’d sat through a fifteen-minute piano lesson that had felt like three hours. If you’ve ever watched the most patient person in the universe give a piano lesson to a six year-old whose attention, sensory, and impulsivity issues were all presenting at maximum and managed to maintain an outward display of imperturbable serenity while privately roiling with what must be unhealthy levels of exasperation, then you know how I was feeling. Walking out of that room with shoulders practically up by my earlobes and jaw so firmly clenched inside my mask I knew it would be a couple of days of soft food only, I lay sight on my other son, whose worried brow line and open math workbook on his lap told me that he had been literally staring at the page the entire time I’d been in his brother’s piano lesson. This was the only window we’d have that day for me to help him with math before he became too tired to compute, so I switched gears and sat down next to him while my daughter went in for her piano lesson. Aside from the fact that an impromptu lesson on how to draw factor trees hadn’t been part of my carefully-crafted afternoon plan, and despite knowing that this is almost probably not the method that the Patron Saint of Singapore Math would espouse, it was obvious that this child was already in a bit of a spiral over the words and numbers on the page before him. When his anxiety has been piqued, there are obvious tells in his affect and behavior, and they were all there waving around their conspicuous semaphores. I knew this would be hard but tried to feel grateful for that knowledge, as it’s always helpful when faced with a learning experience.

As soon as I began watching him work through the first problem, however, there it was: the X factor. We’re not talking algebra here, though–no, the variable in this interpersonal equation was right there in my son’s hand. I’m talking about his pencil, though to call it such is to flatter the sorry excuse for a writing utensil. It was a stub barely long enough to grip, and its nub of a nib was basically flat. Despite the fact that it should have been sharpened days earlier, that wasn’t its most distressing quality; not only was it missing its original eraser, along with the metal sleeve that had once crowned the pencil’s end, but the replacement eraser (you know the ones: the Pink Pearl-colored caps that fit perfectly around the hexagonal stem of a Number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga, shaped vaguely like the top of the elementary school-issue mucilage bottles of yore) had been worn clean through to form a cylindrical cuff around the pencil. But that’s not all. That cylindrical cuff had split down the side, so it was more like a thick bangle that kept slipping down the shaft of the pencil while he tried to tease out least common multiples with what used to be a graphite point.

I won’t go into the details of the next twenty minutes, but the most difficult part was probably watching him try to use this pathetic implement. Just witnessing it was enough to make my hands sweat, and because we were at the music teacher’s house, it was the only pencil in our possession. At a certain point, the child’s anxiety flared to the degree that it was interfering with his automatic math fact retrieval, and he was having trouble with even the simplest task, like deciding where on the page to set up a division problem. Despite the fact that my own anxiety was breathing down my neck by this point, I knew it was an important modeling opportunity, so I chose to trust that my youngest child was safely outside in the yard catching ants and not climbing under cars looking for lucky pennies like he had the week before, and decided to focus my frustration on the inept utensil in my son’s right hand. “You know, Liam,” I said, “That pencil isn’t doing you any favors here. In fact, it’s making this all a lot harder. After this, I am confiscating that pencil. It’s completely dysfunctional, and the time has come to retire it. We have literally hundreds of pencils at home, so when you get back you can choose a selection to replace it with. And when I get home, I’m going to take this pencil, and I’m going to burn it. I’m going to melt the eraser. Then I’m going to take the graphite and crush it into powder and flush it all down the toilet.”

We both laughed, which helped to reset the energy, and he was able to successfully complete the page of math, after which I took the scrap of pencil, as promised, put it into my pocket, went outside, and was so relieved to find that my wild child had followed the directions to “keep his feet on nature” and out of the street that I let him bring every single one of the sticks he’d collected into the car.

To be continued…

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