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Richard Swerdlow (Richard Swerdlow)

The new school year is underway but a former classroom staple has disappeared, much to the regret of Richard Swerdlow.

September means a new school year. Long before students arrive, teachers are preparing - organizing classrooms, setting up rows of desks, sharpening pencils.

But one beginning-of-year ritual is no longer required. Chalk. I loved unpacking that new chalk all teachers were allocated, perfectly symmetrical white sticks in a little box, looking oddly like a pack of cigarettes, waiting for their professional life to begin on the chalkboard.

Those unused little sticks didn't look like much, but each crumbly white cylinder held great power. On chalkboards in classrooms throughout schools, chalk numbers unlocked the secrets of algebra. Chalk scrawled into word lists displayed vocabulary from the world's great literature. And chalk scribbled a little of both to demystify the science concepts of Einstein and Newton.

As the year wore on, the sticks of chalk wore down, turning to stubs, their lives worn away in writing beautiful poetry, facts from history, titles of biographies of great men and women, rules for team sports.


These days, chalkboards, those hideous green panels, have been mostly replaced by "smart boards" - huge digital screens. Teachers use Smart boards like a giant computer monitor, to display information more precisely than a chalkboard ever did.

So, the talcum smell of chalk, powdery smudges on clothes, clapping blocky felt erasers clean, are from the classrooms of yesterday, obsolete as inkwells and quill pens. Today’s students won’t remember chalkboards, any more than they know cameras with film or phones with cords, just another relic of a pre-digital age.

But I remember chalkboards. And maybe you remember them, too.

All that knowledge displayed in chalk can easily be erased.

But I've discovered something. The dusty smell of chalk can also erase the years, bringing you right back to school and that day math finally clicked for you, as you stood at the chalkboard with a stick of chalk in your hand.

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.