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No need for No. 2 pencils

Published 7:17pm Saturday, May 25, 2013

There is one undeniable fact about my desk that is readily apparent to anyone who visits: It’s kind of a mess. Stacks of paperwork for different projects that are in various states of completion have begun to merge, and there’s an increasingly small area where I set my laptop each morning, surrounded by a rainbow of neon-colored sticky-notes with an array of messages and reminders.

Within easy reach are two cups full of pens. Collecting pens is a bit of an obsession for many journalists, and at events where businesses have set up their booths with cheap advertising giveaways, I often find myself resisting the urge to move from table to table, filling the bag with new pens.

What you won’t find in those cups are pencils. Not the mechanical variety that I used during my misguided attempt to become an engineer in college. Not the fat, stubby kind I used in kindergarten. (Do they still make those?) Not the jumbo-sized tourist pencils you can find at the beach. And certainly not the No. 2 pencils necessary to the old days of standardized testing.

As it turns out, I have something in common with students in Suffolk Public Schools in that regard. This year, like their counterparts around the commonwealth of Virginia, Suffolk students will be taking their Standards of Learning tests on computers. That means no more filling out bubbles, no more interminable instructions about the proper way to fill out those bubbles, no more finding (or making) patterns in those blocks of shaded bubbles. And no more No. 2 pencils.

I always wondered why we couldn’t use No. 1 pencils or No. 3 pencils. In fact, I’ve never seen a No. 3 pencil, and it occurs to me that whoever invented the No. 1 pencil probably thought he had a good thing going until new-and-improved No. 2 version came along and took away all his business.

I can imagine a belated marketing meeting at Pickwick Pencils (“The number one purveyor of No. 1 pencils in Pennsylvania,” perhaps?) in which company officials blame one another for losing the big school account. And then they notice, sitting at the end of the long conference table, their accountant, scribbling away on his ledger sheets with a No. 2 pencil.

You might be surprised how ugly things can get in a meeting of pencil-pushers, but in my imagination, the meeting ends with the lead flying, as it were.

With or without the pencils, Virginia’s SOL tests are a big deal for students and for the commonwealth’s school systems. Parents should make sure their children get plenty of rest, have a good, low-carbohydrate breakfast, listen carefully to their teachers’ instructions and pay close attention to the questions and all their answers.

Good luck, and bring plenty of pencils — or not.

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