Being a 4th grader in Swiss school meant having a highly diversified pencil case. I had an impressive number of pens, pencils, colored pens and pencils, and various other accoutrements for school, such that I remember my mother nearly melting down on our day-long back-to-school-shopping trip. How could a nine-year-old child need so very many things? Actually, my five-year-old-brother needed even more things, but his school saga is a different story entirely. My mom pulled through that day, in French, and she got me every writing instrument on the list. The word for “pen” in French is le stylo, but pardon, one stylo does not fit every need. I was going to be educated.
There is la plume, the fountain pen, which I learned quite early on was to be used for all writing of any kind. Make sure you have plenty of replacement ink cartridges on hand, and don’t wear white sleeves! If you make a mistake, that’s quite unfortunate, but for such occasions you have l’effaceur, a highlighter-type marker with a broad tip which will erase the fountain pen ink from your page. Voilà! Unfortunately, you cannot then use la plume to write over a spot you have corrected (you should have thought of that before you made that mistake in the first place). Luckily, l’effaceur has, on its other end, a blue felt-tipped correction pen, which you uncap with a flourish and use to write in the space that you erased. And once you have covered up your shameful mistake, please, put l’effaceur away and take up la plume again. Let us pretend this never happened.
There is le Bic, which is, quelle horreur, the ball-point pen. Le Bic is never to be used under any circumstances. How dare you. Yes, you just try and use your poor effaceur to cover up a Bic mistake – bonne chance with that!
The effaceur was an interesting addition to my writing repertoire. I had always thought that if you wanted to be able to erase, you wrote with a pencil, but that if you wrote with a pen and had to cross something out, the world would have continued to turn. Here is the solution: with la plume and l’effaceur you get the clean lines of the pen – did you know that pencil can smudge? – but you can still erase any evidence of your mistakes. The boldness of ink, the plausible deniability of graphite. In the U.S. I had written with that gummy eraseable ink once or twice, but this was next level. You could see the change in thickness of the line when you wrote over your mistake with the correction pen, but the blue color was maintained, and you learned eventually to smooth it in with a light touch, so that barely anyone noticed. This was my earliest foray into sprezzatura, the art of making the laborious look effortless.
Which reminds me: le crayon, the pencil, actually did have a role in all this: only in designated areas where brouillons, practice, was allowed. Le crayon was used for any writing which was not destined to be perfect writing, such as math calculations. Oh, you thought you were being so good by using le plume instead of le Bic to do your calcules? But no, not for les calcules. Come on, you use a pencil for that. Your pencil marks can cower in shame on your page as you muddle through the problem. Only when you arrive at the correct answer to the math problem may you pull out le plume again. Don’t even let me see le Bic anywhere near that page, mademoiselle, you think I don’t know the difference?
I was not known for neat handwriting before going to Switzerland, but my loopy freeform script was about to meet its match. My math teacher, Monsieur Magnin, was going to teach me to do my math neatly if it sent him to the hospital. My first foray into math calculations in my math chair was, and even I will admit this, bold. I had zero regard for the little quadrilles of the graph paper. I wrote my numbers willy-nilly, whatever size I liked! M. Magnin put a stop to this. He caught me in the middle of an exercise writing my big numbers and had me start over, with proper-sized numbers, in the space below. Only then would he bestow his grudging check-marks upon my complete answers, but not without letting me know that I had work to do. My 1s and 7s were atrocious – I must write them the Swiss way, otherwise how can anyone tell them apart? And how could I have forgotten to use my crayon for my calcules instead of my plume? Le sigh.
Perhaps the defining moment in my relationship with M. Magnin arrived with the onset of les divisions, long division. I struggled with long division, and I had dutifully learned to employ my crayon in my struggles, but my mistakes overpowered even my poor gomme (pencil eraser, not to be confused with the lofty effaceur of blue ink). I presented M. Magnin with my ardent calcules, and he was horrified at what he saw on the page. “But,” he stammered, “you can see all the eraser marks!” I hastily promised to recopy the calcules without a single erasure. He was clearly still upset. “But this page, this page will still be visible in your cahier!” Now I was stumped. Erase harder? “MAIS NON!” Tear out the page? That idea almost did send him to the hospital. I had to let him think about it for a minute; he ultimately decided that the only path forward was to glue the offending page to the page facing it. Let us pretend this never happened. No remnants of torn out pages would survive to remind us of the incident, and no innocent eyes would ever have to find themselves staring at such glaring calcules which had been so inadequately erased.
I found my math cahier in a box of Swiss whatnots last week and opened it, wondering if the glued-together pages had been a funny dream I’d once had. Not only were they still glued together, but their conjoined thickness made them easy to find with one casual flip-through. M. Magnin did triumph in correcting my 1s and my 7s forever, but I am glad that my brouillons, even the messy ones, are still there if you want to look for them.