Marlena Raines

Every day I take out my mechanical pencil and my Pink Pearl eraser and place them on the desk in front of me before I start my schoolwork. My eraser, though it was originally a perfect parallelepiped and jolly pink, now sports rough, rounded edges and a dull gray-black coating consisting of dust, lead and whatever else lives in my pencil case. It has gotten me through a semester of college — a semester of writing and erasing and rewriting and sweeping the shavings off my desk, the carcasses of the numbers and words I have just slaughtered. I am a serial eraser, ready to scrub out any mistakes as neatly and efficiently as possible. At the first sign of trouble (an algebra snafu on my physics homework, perhaps), my trusty pink eraser is there to eliminate it. Although this particular eraser has only been by my side for a semester, I’ve never gone through life without one to lean on.

Many of those around me are slightly worried about my emotional connection to my eraser. I recall my friend staring at me with concern one time while I hyperventilated and dug through my pencil case, heart palpitating, where is it where is it where are you??? I was close to tears. This sounds ridiculous, but it is absolutely true. My heartbeat speeds up dramatically and my body is flooded with adrenaline whenever I cannot immediately find my eraser, the tool that allows me to feign perfection.

You probably were first introduced to erasers in kindergarten. “E is for Eraser,” you may have chanted. And when your little hands grew big enough to hold a pencil, you learned how to make marks with the shiny gray lead and then remove them if they were less than satisfactory — if they were errors. Typos, mistakes, goofs, glitches and gotchas. Instead of leaving our slip-ups out in the open, we are trained to hide any sign of them. Although the traditional rubber eraser was only invented in the 1770s, humans have been erasing throughout history, using whatever they could find that would work: wax, stone, even bread. Erasers are still ubiquitous today, though they have evolved from their primitive forms. Pink ones can be found on the end of every yellow Ticonderoga pencil; long white ones grace the tops of mechanical pencils. Independent of pencils, erasers come in every size and shape imaginable: squares, rectangles, amorphous spheres. For those who want to make more of a statement, there exists everything from eraser houses to eraser puzzles. I am not immune: in my own basement sprawls a collection of small, deconstructible erasers. It’s a vast menagerie of pastel-colored pandas, porcupines and pigs—the list goes on. We have even developed the ability to erase ink, which has always possessed the semblance of permanence. And though the digital age seems to be eliminating the need for paper, erasers are still a mainstay in every home, classroom, and backpack. The average eraser costs a mere 80 cents and is easily found in your local Office Depot. One is always nearby if needed.

Needless to say, everyone makes mistakes. After all, we’re only human — a reminder that countless singers and motivational blogs never cease to repeat. Blemishes cover our skin, our possessions and our hearts, scars of life that are unavoidable. These things happen to everyone, and often they are beyond our control. Sometimes they’re small. You forgot your bus card, now you’re late to work. Sometimes they’re big. Your-whole-life-is-messed-up-now kind of big. You shot someone, maybe. Crashed your car and lost your job. You can imagine the possibilities, which are too frightening to list here. Yet at the end of the day, our first instinct is to cover up what we have done. We put on makeup to hide the spots on our faces, the circles under our eyes and the physical flaws that we were born with. Yet even then, when our makeup is caked on so it is obvious that we have concealed our defects, it is trashy. It is essential to maintain impeccability while simultaneously hiding the effort this requires. When your parents ask on obligatory biweekly phone calls how your day was, you answer “fine” even if your day felt like a trip through Dante’s nine circles of hell and back. Only upon further interrogation may you admit to what went wrong. Shuffling pathetically along through life, we are part of an endless cycle of mistake-making and mistake-fixing.

As I’ve gotten older, it seems to have been less accepted to rely on the temporary nature of a pencil and eraser — perhaps my teachers realized that we would have to reckon with our mistakes eventually. No more potential for smudging and fudging, they said. Only pens allowed in this classroom. I do admit that something feels more honest about writing with a pen. Thought must be put into your every action. Each time your mind wanders or your hand slips, you have to cross it out (unless you are lucky enough to have one of those special pens with erasing capabilities). I am in awe of the scratch paper that my mother uses to complete the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink every day — there is a long, winding mess of scribbles visible for anyone to see, each one a testament to the multitude of thoughts and connections that allowed her to solve every clue.

There are stakes when you write with a pen. Because you may make a mistake, and when you do, it’s impossible to hide behind the eraser’s futile shavings. Everyone who reads your work will know that something went wrong. The threat of social ostracism and a negative reputation looms, despite the fact that our personalities and opinions and decisions are sculpted by the mistakes we have made. It surprises me when people are surprised by another’s misfortune. “She seemed so put together,” they murmur in hushed tones. She seemed put together because if she wasn’t, people would stare and whisper and judge, I want to scream at them. When we can’t keep up our facade of flawlessness, we are left at the mercy of an unforgiving public council. And so we clutch our erasers in our fists, all the way from kindergarten to death.

We are all ashamed when we mess up, and the erasers recognize it too. “For BIG Mistakes,” one gigantic pink eraser taunts. I think it is as big as my forearm. Learn from your mistakes, they say. However, some mistakes you just can’t erase all the way, and the sting of humiliation lingers long after the actual blunder. The paper will never be clear, no matter how many shavings you scrub out. You can learn from what went wrong, and you will hopefully not do it again, but your failure remains etched in the pages of your life.

You and I and everyone else around us constantly forget our bus cards, text the person we swore we wouldn’t, miss deadlines, and so on. We will try to fix what we can. We will try to forget if it is embarrassing. One thing we can count on is that we’ll still erase, pushing our Ticonderoga pencils into the paper until the eraser is all but gone and green metal marks bruise our notebooks. I can’t help but find it ironic that as they do their job, erasers erase themselves. The very instrument that destroys our missteps destroys itself in the process, hiding the fact that we even tried to erase at all. When it is gone, we are left with a choice: instead of writing tentatively in pencil and erasing every two minutes, we can write in pen and cross out and read other people’s work and see that they have crossed out just as much. This is hard, I know. But I also know that it is alarming that my body feels physically threatened when I don’t have an eraser. I don’t think I will ever be able to completely give up my eraser, but I can try to pick up my pens more.

Grace Parmer | grace.parmer@yale.edu