There’s a Pencil in My Inkwell

The other day when I was mindlessly surfing the web I came across a farfetched story titled; Australian schools set to ban students from raising hands in class in favor of greater engagement. The blood drained from my face, and my eyes and mouth froze wide open, as my brain desperately scrambled to make sense of it all. Some Victorian schools are banning students from putting their hands up in classrooms to answer the teacher’s questions; a few teachers at Frankston High School are writing their students’ names on icy pole sticks and pulling out names at random from the cluster of sticks, and then asking that student for the answer. An unsettling feeling started to well up inside of me as I started to think about what else has already been banned, or is to be banned, from Australian schools. Several schools have already dropped teaching cursive writing. Experts have proclaimed: Why teaching cursive handwriting is an outdated waste of time. And playground games that are deemed too rough have been banned. Shooting my hand into the air to answer a teacher’s question, learning to write cursive with a pen dipped in an ink well, and longing for the fun and freedom of recess and lunchtime was the essence of my primary school life.

crowded playground


I went to North Williamstown Primary School. I think that dad would drive us to school some mornings. On other mornings I would walk, and from time to time catch the red bus at the corner of Melbourne Road and Wilkins Street. After I got a bike for Christmas I rode the couple of miles to school. I was advanced from kindergarten into first grade halfway through my first school year and so I had to catch up to all the other first graders as well as get ready for second grade during the last half of the year. For the next six years we sat in wooden desks, two to a desk. The desks were built on a tubular metal frame; the seat was a flat wooden plank and the writing storage area was a box with a lift up lid. The top of the desk had holes for the ink wells, and a recessed pencil pen holder; if you remove the ink wells the desks were not all that different from the furniture in today’s college classrooms.



It must have been about third grade when we graduated from pencils and started to use an ink pen. The pen was a thin wooden cylinder with a metal nib holder on one end; we dipped the nib into the ink well and carefully put the pen to the paper in front of us to start our writing exercises. The ink bottle and the wooden box holding the empty and unused ink wells were kept in a cupboard at the front of the room. The Ink monitor was the most esteemed, and acclaimed, job that could be entrusted to a third grader: and it was a highly prized job in any of the grades. The ink monitor would position the ink well into the hole at the front of the desk ready for ink filling. The ink bottle was capped with two glass tubes; one tube was bent and tapered to a point and the other smooth and open on top so the ink monitor could fine tune the flow by holding and moving their finger across the opening. The ink wells were filled by raising one end of the ink bottle, placing the tapered end of the glass tube as close to the ink well as possible, and then slowly pouring while controlling the flow with an ingenious and proficient finger motion. I think the inkwells were re-filled a couple of times a week. At the same time we were learning to use ink we were learning to write cursive: we had paper with equally spaced guidelines and had to reproduce one line at a time each letter of the alphabet.



Each cursive letter was carefully covered with blotting paper as it was shaped. And the blotter was gently pressed, to soak up the extra ink that was used to form our fascinating cursive hieroglyphics. Some days we lost interest in forming and then joining cursive letters to make words and we would drop the tip of our ink filled nib onto the blotting paper toand then marvel as unfamiliar and unique ink shapes appeared. Blotter was also used to make spit balls; a smallish chunk of blotter would be surreptitiously torn from the blotting paper and rolled into a ball and popped into the mouth to soak up spit. We would flick the spit ball onto the ceiling, or at somebody, by jamming the end of our ruler under the desk lid. The ruler was then bent back, with the spit ball on the end, to produce a launching catapult. We also flicked ink at each other in ink fights, or onto the back of the teachers dust coat as they walked the classroom aisles, by loading up the pen nib with ink and then launching the ink with deft wrist movements. Sometimes after practicing our cursive alphabet we would revert back to using pencils for drawing and other activities.

pen ink blotter


But before we retired our pens we made sure that we had smeared and then rubbed ink into different parts of our fingers; signs of our emerging maturity and manhood. I reproduced those ink stains years later at Footscray Tech; the chemistry students were easily identified by the chemical stained white lab coats we all wore. And we were deliberately clumsy with the potassium permanganate so our fingers would be dressed in tell tale brown stains: A sign of our brotherhood.

There was a separate boys and girls sixth grade class. I remember our desks from sixth grade. The desks were arranged in rows and the rows were ranked by your proficiency; each row was arranged with the two brightest boys sitting in the front desk. The smartest row was by the windows. We didn’t have any privacy policies at school back then; each day we all new who was the smartest and who was the not so brightest. Some time during the year I was moved to the end of the smartest row and sat beside Wayne Pendlebury. In sixth grade we were starting to establish, and focus on our identity, and how it relates to the self. For us our identity was the tool of our expression and we spent hefty amounts of time carving our initials, which we elaborately disguised, into the desks with our compass needle. We also gouged intricate connecting curved lines that could be mistaken for dry river bed landscaping to make the desk our own; or we just doodled and whittled.


image source:thesuperslice

And you would always smudge the new carvings with lead pencil or ink to disguise the fresh cuts in the wood. Because we might change desks a couple of times a year, depending on our class ranking, no one was ever caught and given six of the best for desk carvings.

The only time talking was allowed in the classroom was answering the teacher’s question. And providing the answer to the question was done with decorum. When the teacher asked a question it was your duty if you knew the answer to silently raise your hand. The teacher would then choose an answerer from the raised hands. If the teacher judged there were not enough raised hands they would command “boys, hands up now”. No one ever taught us how to raise our hands; it was something we just knew. There were several hand raising techniques and strategies.

Basic Hand Raising: slowly raising the hand in an arc from the desktop while keeping the arm in a curved extension.
The Self Assured: speedily moving the hand to the shoulder and then quickly extending the arm.
The Pump: infinitely repeating the Self Assured.
If I Have To: when the elbow stays resting on the desktop and the arm moves through ninety degrees and one finger is pointed up.
I Don’t Know the Answer: supporting the raised arm with the other arm at the elbow.

And now I wonder; if nobody gains experience in raising their hand in school will that lead to the imminent demise of wedding toasts, Scottish sword dances, thumbs up, high fives, fist pumps, knocking on wood, and talk to the hand gestures.

school games


Recess and lunch promised release from the classroom routine and the constant gaze of the teacher. After quickly eating the lunch that our mum’s had carefully wrapped in grease proof paper the playground was our land of far horizons. British Bulldog was always a favorite: Two lines at least twenty feet apart were scratched in the playground dirt and someone would start off alone in the middle. The rest of us playing would line up along one of the lines and on a count run to the other line. The person in the middle had to grab someone who was running and lift both their feet off the ground while chanting British Bulldog. If he succeeded then the person he lifted joined him in the middle. And so you became a member of the tribe and the pack was hunting the few runners; the tackling and the lifting became zealous and energetic. Bruises and grazes were common but that was just part of growing up in the school yard.


image source:EJ Fox from Circleville, United States

We also played our version of Hoppo Bumpo; you had to hop on one leg and try to knock anyone else over. A good Hoppo Bumpo strategy was to form alliances and then hunt in packs to hop and bump other players until they fell to the ground. The members of the pack would then turn on each other because the last person standing was the winner. Brandy was a less physical game; the least that you might take away was a slight bruise. Brandy was usually played with ten or fifteen and you would line up in front of a shelter shed wall between two markings. You could not move outside of the two markers. Some one would throw a tennis ball as hard as they could from a few feet away and you would have to avoid being hit. If you got hit you swapped places. We never went into the girls playground although we sometimes lost sight of the unmarked border during a frenzied game of chasey. And now leapfrog, marbles, tag, ball games, and even skipping is being banned; the school system is failing our kids.

john bumpo

image source:johnmcadam

Maybe I should start the tradition of staging an official launch of summer Hoppo Bumpo tournament; create a twenty by twenty square with sidewalk chalk on the street in front of the house. Friends would then know that summer has officially arrived.


How to Write in Cursive

Classic Fountain Pens

10 Classic Schoolyard Games: Americans vs Brits

2 thoughts on “There’s a Pencil in My Inkwell

  1. John McA,
    In the States we played a variation of Hoppo Bumpo which embraced the essence of the spirit of the western American. We delicately termed the sport, “Kill or be Kiiled”. After a kick ball was thrown on to the field, a majority of the game involved forming a cluster, what you might term a “scrum”, and flailing your legs in all directions in quest of said kick ball and the legs and torsos of other participants.

    As we aged, the objective was refined to include throwing the ball at the least excited participant in the game to ensure that that person become the center of the developing scrum. As a young lad, I had many bruises, cuts, and black’ blue marks on my legs, torso and head. But I might proudly add, no one ever pushed me over when standing on one leg.


    • It seems that we both have known from a young age that standing on one leg is important for our brain health and well being. Recent studies have supported what we knew as youngsters; that 53-year-olds who could stand on one leg for ten seconds with their eyes closed were the most likely to be fit and well in 13 years’ time. However, those who could manage only two seconds were three times as likely to die before the age of 66. If you think that you would still enjoy standing on one leg then perhaps we could both stand on one leg and bend the elbow together; it could be the start of a wellness program.


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