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photo: patti witten

The boss is speaking to a dozen office workers seated around the conference table. He mentions an unfamiliar name, and a young man asks, “Is that a new employee?”

“Yes,” the boss replies, “we have a new employee.” Maybe he says her name is Marion, or maybe he doesn’t say her name. Maybe she needs a new, sharp pencil.

While the boss speaks, I rise and go to the supply room adjacent to the conference room and push a brand new, yellow №2 pencil into the electric sharpener. It whines and grinds loudly.

“Do this some other time, will you?” says the boss to me over his shoulder, his voice rising above the noise. “Not during the meeting.”

“You’re right. I apologize,” I say, rounding the table and returning to my seat, holding the pencil in my right hand, the sharp end pointing up. I look my boss in the eye just long enough, then drop my gaze.

A public apology may extinguish rebuke and perhaps annoyance altogether. And if that is unsuccessful, if a grudge ensues, an apology will at least extinguish any embarrassment at being singled out, at making the mistake of sharpening a pencil for Marion. I will take the moral high ground that public apology briefly achieves. Work is a war of manners, theatrics, a negotiation of what I am willing to concede from my private and more important life. I’ve made my point.

A new pencil needs extra time in the sharpener. Force its blunt hexagonal end into the shuddering grinder. The sharpener responds immediately, and the pencil vibrates in your hand. It may attempt to back out of the blades, but keep the pressure on it. When the whining and shaking subside, remove it for inspection and return it to the sharpener for fine-tuning. Give it a slight turn and a light finishing touch until a perfect point emerges full of promise, ready for war.

Marion will have her pencil.

Written by

Writer, songwriter, essayist; novel-in-progress. Writes for Cornell U College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.

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