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Random words, pictures and thoughts of one who always wishes to be on the mind's road to discovery!

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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Sunday, June 28, 2009


As I was putting away my most recent scrapbooking purchase, a set of chalks and stencils, (which cost me $104!, since Massachusetts has sales tax, which we don't have in civilized New Hampshire, or Montana for that matter! But I digress), I started to think about my long association with chalk. I tried to remember when it began but my earliest recollections are volunteering to clap the erasers at the end of the school day for my favorite teacher. It was quite the feather in one's cap to be chosen and usually there were two of us. We'd run down the marble stairs to the imposing front entrance of our Catholic school and join the other chosens from other classrooms. We'd clap and clap and try to make the biggest clouds of chalk dust and then to make sure our erasers were as clean as possible we'd bang them on the huge stone walls of the entry. This inevitably got us in hot water with Mother Superior, whose office window overlooked the doors. I guess those rectangular chalky imprints were rather disfiguring but Boy, those erasers were clean!

Living in Manhattan we used the sidewalks as our playgrounds and chalk had a very important place in our active lives--particularly in the structure of the pottsy grid--known in some circles as hopscotch and other hi-falutin' names. Oh, the lines had to be just so and sometimes, depending on the sidewalk, the paving stones would be just the right size for the 0ne-two section or the three block. I was back in the old neighborhood about ten years ago. They've planted trees along the streets, people carry pooper scoopers, the rent on our apartment is $4000 a month and there wasn't a kid or a pottsy grid to be seen. Chelsea is the PLACE To BE now, but the old school is still there--no chalk marks on the walls, either. But then, chalk has become somewhat passe these days. Probably not green enough.

I remember the black, real slate chalk boards, too. In the lower grades I had occasion to kneel on the wainscoating under the chalk tray for talking in class. Only happened once --I was a fast learner. But this one painful experience, in which we were not to use the chalk tray for balance or relief, was not enough to dampen my love of chalk and all things chalk related. I begged to be allowed to go to the board to do the math homework, or write the spelling words or diagram a sentence.

In my eighth grade classroom one of the slates was broken--a whole triangular piece right across the section was missing. It was whispered that the teacher, Mother St. LA( I don't DARE to identify her more clearly, since she is probably in heaven watching me write this essay and who knows what punishment I will be forced to endure should I give her full name) broke it when banging the head of a particularly disobedient student into it. She was awe inspiring---let me tell you about the day she forgot her desk was on an elevated platform. One minute she was there, the next she was not. I THINK we gasped but I KNOW we did not laugh and not a kid moved as she rose red-faced and furious. Class went on as if nothing happened. I'm not sure we even talked about it outside of school--who knew where she might be and what she would do if she heard us! Oops, I digress once more. But I should tell you that she had a biological sister, who looked just like her and taught music in my high school. Mother St CM couldn't be more different than LA and I loved her.

Our real Mom and Dad both worked outside the home. My sister and I arrived from school around 3:30, assuming I didn't have the eraser detail, and we were not allowed to stay on the street but rather had to go upstairs and start our homework. Dad got home around 4:30-5 and Mom around 6. This gave us plenty of time to take the sheets off the bed ( white sheets!) and don them as religious habits, with plenty of long skirt to drag on the floor. There was one large plaster wall in our bedroom painted a pale green. It was a perfect blackboard and we loved playing school ,complete with chalk, and taking turns teaching lessons on that wall. Sometimes the amount of chalk seemed excessive so, taking a page from the nuns, we would use a damp wash cloth to remove the excess. This was more to prevent our Mother from knowing what we'd been doing than to ,in any way, restore the wall. We never could figure out how she knew --we dried it with a towel and made sure the sheets were tucked in perfectly on the beds. That was just one of the many ways we knew that our Mom was really smart. I don't know where we got the chalk though--probably lifted it when on eraser assignment. Can't remember if Mom confiscated it and we replaced it or if we had it hidden somewhere. Some details just fade with age, you know?

As I moved on to high school the fascination with chalk diminished . Oh, I still volunteered to do homework math and science on the blackboard--especially those multi-trait Punnett squares in biology. I loved them and the nun who taught the class. Not CNDs this time but Sisters of St Joseph of Carondolet--whom I really didn't like, in general--but I thought Larry Joe was a doll and it is because of her that I majored in biology in college and not the English that I'd always thought I would study. Ultimately, it was because of her, too, that my life's work was as a biology teacher.

And that is where my love affair with chalk culminated. By this time the old black slate chalkboards had been replaced by green colored material of some sort and I changed to yellow, rather than white, chalk because I felt it was more visible in the back rows of the classroom. I had boxes of yellow chalk and boxes of multicolored chalk in my supply room. I had a special plastic chalk holder but it didn't do any good--chalk was in my hair, all over my hands, under my nails. I had a large protractor for angles when teaching physics and a gigantic compass for drawing circles. I had a gadget that drew five lines at a time--the music teacher turned me on to that--made drawing Punnett squares--the big ones--so much easier. My black sleeves, when I wore them, always had a slight yellowish tinge to the cuffs and the rest of the blouse had a light dusting of pollen-like overlay. My black skirt or pants, when I wore them ,always had a bar of yellow chalk strategically placed across my derriere. I laughed when I told friends that if ever I were in an accident and had no ID the emergency people would know that I was a teacher --without a problem. But I actually wore that veneer of chalk dust proudly.

And, oh, the biological diagrams I'd stay after school to draw for the next days lessons! Colorful and labeled just so. One of the first I ever did was of a nephron in the kidney. The glomerulus and duct in lovely yellow; the duct surrounded by the blue renal artery and the red renal vein--actually by the capillaries that came together at the junction of vein and artery. I left my classroom so proud of that diagram and returned the next morning to a spotless, gleaming black board with all evidence of multicolored chalk dust removed from it and the tray beneath it! I was devastated. All that work and detail. I asked my department head about its disappearance to be told that the custodians erase and clean all boards unless one wrote PLEASE SAVE, in huge letters in several places. Never happened again--not only am I a fast learner but custodians these days only sweep the floors--no boards, trays,windows or waste baskets and certainly, no mopping or washing of boards!!! But then again, when I retired the old boards were gone( except in my classroom--I wouldn't let them cover my green board) replaced by white boards and erasable markers, which skip and run out of ink. One doesn't even get a nice blotch on the fingers or even a mark on a white blouse sleeve. Really! About the only thing left to designate the teacher is the red pen, and I hear they are doing most things on the computer now so even that has gone the way of the slide rule!

It wasn't until I put my new purchase away with all the other sets of chalk I've amassed that I realized my love affair has not ended. I can still apply chalk to surfaces and my work area is still covered with the rainbow dust of its excess. I have chalk under my nails and on my jeans and I still love it--only now if I'm in an accident who knows what they'll think I do for a living. Whatever it is, it involves CHALK!

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