We thought it was a privilege to get tapped on the shoulder by the teacher and then handed those dry, dusty, dirty chalkboard erasers. Two of us were chosen, then sent outside to clap the erasers clean, which we did by pounding them with all our third-grade might against the red-brick wall of the school building, pummeling out rectangular smudges of powder, leaving ghost tracings on the wall, plumes of pulverized chalk clouding the air, coating our hands.
It was an honor to be called up to the board — to write out a spelling word, to work out a math problem, or, before the last bell rang, to be part of the team that got to wash down the chalkboard, plunging a rag into a bucket of water to wipe away the remnants of the day, in preparation to start fresh tomorrow.
The chalkboard was the focal point of the classroom, the canvas on which everything meaningful was laid out for us. A penmanship chart mounted just above it reminded us how to form a perfect cursive curl at the top of a capital D or T; a daily tally in the corner of the board told us who had sold the most World’s Finest Chocolate bars; a name with a check mark noted who among us was talking too much. We were riveted to it every day, its place in the hierarchy of importance second only to the American flag hanging from a pole in the corner and to which we pledged allegiance every morning.
When I wasn’t in school, I played school, retreating to my room with my own chalkboard on a folding wooden easel. Store-bought chalk was never as smooth as school chalk — there was a grittiness to my Crayola chalk, but that didn’t stop me from carefully forming my name in the corner — “Miss Hudson” — and assigning lessons to my attentive, if eclectic, class of students: Mrs. Beasley, Holly Hobbie, Stretch Armstrong, Ballerina Barbie.
Eventually, my chalkboard migrated to the bedroom closet, along with my dolls, and then to the attic, and then out of the house altogether, a clean removal, an inevitable clearing away.
After my school years, I didn’t think about chalkboards anymore, schoolroom relics supplanted by other mediums of communication — loose-leaf notepaper and spiral notebooks, then word processors, and, finally, thin laptops and phones that fit in our palms: handheld, modern slates for taking notes, typing messages, recording our days, our lives.
And then: Several years ago, I came home from work to find that my dad had been at my house, where he’d built and bolted, onto my fence, a chalkboard, 5-feet-wide by 3-feet-tall, a wooden frame around it that he’d painted a tranquil turquoise.
It was such a surprise, a gift I hadn’t even known I’d wanted. He’d written “Love, Dad” on it, a message that has long since been erased by wind and rain, but I still know that it was there.
The chalkboard went with me when I moved to my townhouse. It’s affixed to my patio fence now, where I can see it from my window. Every week, I write a new message — quotes from writers I like, poems, itineraries for trips I want to take. Messages visible only to me, and to the birds, and to the open air, the sky, and the heavens.
One of the last old-school fish houses in Onslow County stands sentry on the White Oak River. Clyde Phillips Seafood Market has served up seafood and stories since 1954 — an icon of the coast, persevering in pink.