I May Not Be Here

A tale of chalk, polished nails and generational incomprehension
Jim Gabour
30 September 2011

Am I slipping out of generational relevance, I wonder?  I keep thinking that my having access to all these electronic toys myself makes me immune to charges of not being a part of the twenty-first century.

I have a pair of pretty cool video studios for my classes this school year, one a greenscreen space and the other a digital multi-cam set with a Tri-caster control room that can stream a live show directly onto the web or onto hard drives or distribute the program in any closed circuit university system.  The studios are equipped with brand new low-energy fluorescent lighting grids, digital cinema cameras, Hi-Def monitors, teleprompters and sophisticated wireless audio.

All this hardware is pretty state-of-the-art, but I have found that irony can crop up even amidst the technology. 

 I teach one class in the greenscreen room, the forty-foot green curtain being designed for inserting virtual sets into films by means of chroma-keying, also known to techies as “disambiguation”.  I love that word.  Up against the wall, there is this expensive SMART Board system that links to a laptop and transmits the desktop screen extension, but also has special markers that let you write and diagram on top of everything.  Electronically.

But yesterday the old been-here-forever university maintenance guys left something in the room that they thought I needed.  They are actually rather nice fellows, and we get along because I treat them as equals and pepper my conversation with foul language, as they do when among themselves.  But the  maintenance guys had this day brought me something that they considered an essential part of school life.  Which now stood beside the fancy wired electric SMART Board.

They had delivered a chalkboard.  A dusty green chalkboard.

With one eraser.  And no chalk. 

There was a refreshing  Proustian flash of my childhood.  I remember banging erasers together to create huge white clouds, the labor designated as after-school punishment for one more of my undisciplined classroom outbursts.  This happened with some frequency.

These days, even at their most primitive, lecture halls at this modern university have sliding whiteboards that utilize erasable markers, and can double as screens for projected material retrieved from the school website.

I am advancing in age, yes, and in spite of all this gear remain basically an analogue creature.  So I decide what the hell, this may be just the thing.  I will use this board today, rather than deal with digitized images and electronic pointers.  Rather than drag in the laptop and projector and all the various drives and connectors. 

I go the university bookstore to get a simple box of chalk.

In 2011 the on-campus store is quite fancy, rather like a miniaturized upscale mall.  After all, it caters to a market of kids whose parents can afford to toss tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of dollars a year into an education process that may or may not actually get their progeny out of the house. 

As I enter, I see racks of smart clothing, new computers and phones, racks of expensive toiletries and bed clothing.  Behind an ornate counter studded with elaborate chrome cash registers, and LCD screen displays that rather evoke space-age slot machines, there stand three fashionably-dressed young women, engaged in some sort of tribal behavior to this point unknown to me.  They are staring at, all three of them, amazingly detailed, polished and painted long nails.  Six hands are being held vertically, palms out, the hands’ fingertips on unmoving, formal display. Verbal comparisons and words of admiration are being shared. 

This ongoing manicurial worship I have interrupted with my arrival.

I address them as a group, though singularly:  “Excuse me, maam, but where is your chalk?” 

They perform an odd exchange of looks, one to the other and back, like I was asking them something provocative.  The tallest woman tilts her chin downwards toward me and says with a husky voice:  “What, sir?” 

Most intimidating.  She is quite a lot larger than me, and seems to be grinding her teeth.  She has voluminous lashes.  I stand my ground.  My class starts in thirty minutes. 

Me:  “Chalk.  I am looking for chalk.” 

They again look at each other as if to confirm their evaluation of me as some sort of perverse shopper.  Then, as if choreographed, all three stare simultaneously down toward my (slightly paunchy) waist, and on cue slowly raise their eyes to mine, there to pause. 

A beat passes, then The Tall One speaks again:  “Just what are you looking for, sir?”

Me:  “Um, chalk.  For a chalkboard.”

The short and plumb one pushes to the fore, her turn to talk:  “And just what is that, sir?”

“Chalk.  For a chalkboard.”  I am at a loss.  “For the front of a classroom.  To write down lecture notes for students.”

There is another long pause in what has become some sort of ritual rejection of relevance.

“We don’t know what you are describing, sir.  And we certainly don’t have anything like that on the shelves.”   Then, in a gesture of mercy:  “Maybe you could find what you are looking for in a hardware store?”

Now lacking the time necessary to set up my sophisticated electronic display device, I taught my class without either board.  But today I am going to a neighborhood art supply house, where I know they will have chalk, and I am buying a box.  I am removing the more precious apparatus from the studio temporarily and I am writing on the erasable analogue device for my morning and afternoon classes.

Then I am taking a stick of the dusty white stuff to the bookstore.  For the three clerks’ study and undoubtedly disdainful archiving.

(With thanks to <A href="http://www.nail-classes.com/?p=218">Nail Classes</A> for the image)


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