One weeknight in seventh grade, I babysat for my social studies teacher’s two children. I was almost 13 and things were going to change. Thirteen would be my year, I knew. I could feel everything shimmering with teenage potential. Even weeknights became thrilling. Thirteen? Me!
My social studies teacher (and their spouse) lived a few city blocks away. It was winter and they left in a wave of puffy coats and khakis for their middle-aged date night. After their children fell asleep, I wandered around their living room. There were all sorts of things that drew my attention. Books, CDs, toys, pictures — all arranged gloriously on heavy wooden shelves.
The most eye-catching part, though, was the cup of pencils on the coffee table. In it was a Paper Mate Clearpoint Mechanical Pencil, those fancy writing utensils that caught a wave of popularity with kids in my grade. Everyone at South View Middle School had them. Everyone. They went in backpacks alongside rhinestone planners, and I never realized how much I wanted one until that night in my social studies teachers living room, when I first picked it up. It was like listening to ABBA’s Golden Hits CD for the first time in the car with my mom — new, loud, and so totally powerful.
I used my babysitting money to buy the pencil at Walmart the next day. They were expensive — seven dollars for one — and I zipped it into my pencil case with pride. I lugged that bad boy everywhere. It was my most iconic purchase. It glowed with social normality. I had never owned anything that made me feel so beautifully average, so level with my peers. Then, one day in between classes, it broke.
I remember how it happened. I had stuffed too much in my metal green locker, and when I yanked it open, my backpack came tumbling out onto the floor and the contents spilled onto the linoleum floor, pencil included. The plastic cracked and the little rods of led snapped and I stood there, staring at it, until someone picked it up for me.
That was it. In a way, that moment marked my transformation from wannabe to whatever, man. I was no longer the kid who sat on the back of the bus in braces and glasses. I was a mad girl. I was fed up. I was determined to create radical change.
The first pen I stole was from Matt Waterloo in math class. “Can I borrow a pen?” I asked him before the quiz, and then I never gave it back. The habit started with minor offenses like this. Petty crimes. Taking pens from unsuspecting individuals like Matt, my brother, my friends. My braces came off and I started sitting towards the front of the bus.
As I reached high school, the pen thievery intensified. I started taking pens from my teachers’ drawers after school. If someone dropped a pen while walking down the hallway in front of me, I reached down to pick it up and put it in my pocket. Pens from banks, the doctor’s office, bowling alleys, my friends’ houses. I craved to take every kind of pen from every kind of person.
I haven’t actually purchased a writing utensil since that day in seventh grade. Every time I eat at a restaurant, I seize the pen that comes with the checkbook. Thank you, Max Hardman, for your very expensive fountain pen from junior year French class. Lola Todman, if you’re reading this, I used your red ballpoint on my reading assignment yesterday. I finished my gender studies essay with the pen my boyfriend took from UHS for me. And Daphne Iskos, your black licorice scented pen smells stronger every day.
I’m not writing this piece to say “hey, look at me, I’m a misunderstood thief.” There’s just something about owning an item that once belonged to someone else, like you could learn everything they learned during the time they used that pen. Where did they get it? What kinds of words did they write with it? What kind of change did they go through while it was in their possession?
Today I found a pen left on a desk in my English classroom with glitter ink inside. These are the miniscule discoveries that keep me moving from class to class, day to day. I’ve stopped using pencils all together because I’m no longer afraid to mess things up. There’s so much to find.