For a fresh start, sharpen a pencil

Dickerson: For fresh start, sharpen a pencil

"CBS This Morning" co-host John Dickerson shares his thoughts on the big stories of the week in our series Reporter's Notebook.  Across the country, schools are opening their doors to begin a new year. Many classrooms have evolved to reflect modern times, trading chalkboards for dry-erase boards and textbooks for iPads, but there's something to be said for tradition. In this installment, he examines the use of one of the most basic writing instruments -- and the nostalgia that comes with it.


School is starting again and I am sharpening my pencils. That's not a metaphor. I am actually sharpening pencils. I am not currently enrolled anywhere, but when summer ends, and the school supplies season starts I am reminded of the smell of the cedar, the click of the box lid, and the chime of what rattled inside.

A survey of friends and colleagues suggests this is a shared memory. We were all lucky enough to start the year with fresh, new school supplies. But this is not nostalgia. We are still lucky to retain that start-of-school spark that those boxes of pencils represent. The fresh beginning, the idea of creativity to come and that our lives can be orderly and sharp. Give us the tools and we can finish the job. 

The humble instrument has also been on my mind recently because single-use tools help us escape from technology. There is no other distracting functionality. A watch tells time, a notebook for the to-do list and a pencil for writing. It's like the slow food movement but for work. We know that writing by hand helps us retain information longer because it connects us with the process. The pages curl as we press words down onto them. Those words don't go skittering off somewhere into a computer screen. When we pause to sharpen it is the gentle interruption that is necessary for creativity and innovation. 

Proof that pencils help us live deliberately is that author Henry David Thoreau at one point created the most popular pencil in America. To escape modernity he moved off into the woods, which is not an option available to us. But to reconnect with those essential feelings of promise from those early days at the bus stop, we might all start with a box of pencils.