Pencil Sharpening, East and West

Koreans of my generation and earlier have fond memories of their parents sharpening pencils in the evening, for them to take to school the next day. I mostly sharpened them myself on a small desktop sharpener equipped with a rotating handle, but many of my friends had their parents sharpen the pencils for them with small penknives, with amazing results. The number was usually six or so, for each of the six periods we had during the day. Newly sharpened pencils arranged neatly in a pencil case signalled a readiness for school.

For my son, who goes to school here in Canada, the situation is quite different. The pupils are asked to bring around two dozen pencils at the start of the semester, and keep them at school. They are also asked to keep a pencil sharpener in their desk drawer so they can sharpen them as necessary. This means that my son never brings his school pencils home; indeed, he never carries a pencil case in his bookbag, only books and homework. This is profoundly strange to a person like me. Actually, the “pencil case” he has at school doesn’t even look anything like the pencil cases we used to have, it looks more like something that might belong in a kitchen cupboard.

For my son, sharpening mostly goes on at school. This means that children, when asked to work on something, often get up and wander in the direction of the wastebasket to sharpen a pencil. When I attended American-style international schools, we were also permitted to go over to the electric sharpener at the back of the classroom to sharpen our pencils. Asian teachers hate these kind of interruptions. Pencil sharpening is prep, so it should be done outside of class time.


There are other ramifications. Recently, I realized that I had some good handheld sharpeners, but was rarely using them. I was simply not used to them enough, and lacked the skills to coax good results out of them. On the other hand, my son uses these small compact Staedtler sharpeners all the time. (He even knows how to detach ferrules by shoving them in the sharpener and twisting them off.) They probably sell a lot more of those in the West than in Asia, if only because they are included in school supply lists. Here, I see relatively few models of the desktop kind that I used to use, and even the ones that I do see are often designed to be fastened to desks (we had that too in Korea, but they went out of fashion after a while) or even walls (?!). Korean people on average move house too often to allow for sharpeners to be attached to anything, I think.

So this is my standard, go-to sharpener at home. It’s a very old and reliable Korean brand, the shape has changed over the decades (when I was young it was triangular) but it is still the sharpener of choice for many of us.




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