To say the hand-cranked mechanical pencil sharpener was the Cadillac of pencil sharpeners would be a huge understatement. During my school days, the painted metal sharpener was ever present, usually bolted into a long counter in the classroom, always with a line of kids behind it.
I was one of those kids. I can remember the handle on the crank and how it had a propensity to pinch my small fingers. It was worth the risk, to feel the spiral of blades churn, eat wood, and sharpen lead was a discovery with each and every turn. Like a freshly cut Christmas tree, the shortened pencils filled the air with a dusting of red cedar and graphite. Oh, and there was that ridged wheel, the one that would adjust the width of the mouth, that always took a spin, even if we all used the same number 2 pencils.
Most of all, I can remember when the basket was full of shavings and had to be emptied into the trash. It was secured by a metal clip, under a push button, and always required careful removal. It was like a trophy that grew with the envy of everyone else in the class, especially the other kids in line. Maybe that one was just me, but I loved that, like it was a monumental task that had to be accomplished or all the pencils in the world would go dull.
I suppose this is simply nostalgia, the same sharpeners are still around. I happened to see one last weekend while I was at a writing workshop, and it pinged at memories of a more innocent time. That mechanical pencil sharpener, I thought, was our water cooler. It was our fountain of knowledge, since we already had our youth. With the pencils we sharpened, we learned to draw, write, and add and subtract. But we also learned, or at least I did, that if we wanted another turn at the crank, all we had to do was press the sharp point of our pencils hard into our wooden desks and get in line.