Stop. Put Down Your Pencil.

He was bald. But it was a carefully cultivated sort of baldness, lovingly honed. The baldness of a master bald guy. He had blue eyes too, encircled by wired glasses and smile lines. His name was Mr. Oftedahl. He was my 5th grade teacher. 

Mr. O was tall and kind. He liked sports trivia and brain teasers. Over the winter of 1993 he read us I am Regina by Sally Keehn, and to my pre-adolescent horror pronounced the main character’s first name as if it rhymed with a certain unmentionable part of the female anatomy.

Between social studies and math, with breaks for trivia and teasers, he folded in little annoying life lessons, including one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately — Mr. O’s “pop-quiz”.

I remember him passing out the papers — “Pop quiz time”, he explained. “Don’t worry. Just read the instructions.” Now I was a smart kid. The awful one in class who sat, smug, as everyone else completed whatever it was we were doing. Confident that there was nothing in the instructions that I didn’t know, I dismissed them and got down to it.

After a minute I became aware of the sound of classmates giggling. I glanced up, Wow, everyone else was done already — I better hurry up. After another ten seconds Mr. O stopped me and the only other pencil-pusher in the room.

“Cary,” he asked. “Did you read the instructions?”

And so I did.

“Stop,” they read. “Put down your pencil. This is not a test.”

I keep thinking about this lately. I wonder, why now? Maybe it’s this:

We all live lives of mental shortcuts. Mental shortcuts like the one I had that said, “Skip the instructions”. We know how we get to work, what we eat, what we wear, who we do or do not talk to on the street. These mental shortcuts help us glide through life more easily, but at what cost?

We know spontaneity, the feeling of being present, in moments of obstruction, when something new and unaccounted for wheedles or bursts in. The obstructions vary from momentous to mundane, from getting a new job to the moment when you’ve realized last week’s underwear is peaking out the leg of today’s work pants.

It’s in these lumpy, disruptive spaces that we finally feel the moment. “Oh, here I am.”

These moments are scary or funny. They are often uncomfortable. But they are important. I worry sometimes, that they are too far in between. 

It’s in these track-jumping, tongue biting moments that we realize where we are. More importantly, that we can take a new course, that we don’t need to take the shortcut, or follow the routine. Alarming, sometimes sad, these moments can be empowering too.

So where are you today, as you read this?

What all-tall “to-do’s” bookend this moment? Where are you running from? Where are you running to? What led you to this, your latest elsewhere? Did you remember Mr. O’s instructions? Can you remember them now? Here they are. Read them.

“Stop. Put down your pencil. This is not a test.”


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