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by Robert Boucheron

Wait until the pencil lead has worn all the way down to the wood, so it makes a blunt line that peters out in the middle of a test you forgot to study for. Verify the pencil is a Ticonderoga “Number 2,” painted school bus yellow, with a pink eraser attached by a metal band. Note the eraser is worn flat, and the metal band is dented, as though chewed. Note the pencil has six sides. Wonder why this is.

When the scritch-scratch gets on your nerves to the point that you want to slam the pencil down hard, stretch your arms horizontally and forward, over the desk to the front edge, with the pencil in one fist. Scoot the chair back so the legs make as much noise as possible on the terrazzo floor. As you lurch to your feet, drop the pencil so it rolls under the desk. Pick it up by bending awkwardly at the waist. Do not under any circumstances get down on your hands and knees. Flash Mrs. Gorse a look of innocent helplessness.

Casually stroll to the pencil sharpener screwed to the wall at the side of the classroom. All eyes will follow your every movement, so make it count. See the drinking fountain nearby, and realize you are desperately thirsty. Run the water in an arc as high as it will go, until it is clear of impurities and cold enough to drink. This may take a while, so be patient. If water splashes on you or the floor, it isn’t your fault.

Bend over the water fountain, close your eyes, distend your lips as though you are about to kiss the hottest person ever, align your mouth with the jet, and suck in as much water as your cheeks can hold. Tilt your head back and swallow in gulps. Heave a great sigh. Wipe your lips with the back of your hand and accidentally poke yourself with the pencil.

Jab the pencil in the little hole of the pencil sharpener and jiggle it into alignment. Push it in with one hand and turn the crank fast with the other hand, so the sharpener makes a horrible grinding noise. Inspect the point of the pencil. It will be uneven, and not as sharp as a rapier. Repeat the grinding as often as necessary. The tip of the pencil lead may break, or a flaw may appear. Do not allow these setbacks to divert you from perfection.

When the point has reached a conical shape, with scallops at the wooden shaft, and the pencil is almost too short to grasp, hold it to your nose and inhale. It will smell like freshly sawn wood and graphite. Position the pencil in front of your lips like a pistol and blow. Little wood shavings and black dust will disperse in a cloud.

Return to your seat. Stare at the test with the sharpened pencil poised over the paper. Surely the answers will come to you now.

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York City and since 1987 in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, and the Saturday Evening Post.