I never considered the chalkboard’s prominence in my education until I visited my old school in 2015. It shouldn’t have surprised me to find a whiteboard where the chalkboard had been, but the change was startling. No matter how young, most parents today still conjure the image of a chalkboard when they imagine a K-12 classroom. In popular culture, chalkboards are a visual shorthand for school. They appear in stock photography accompanying articles about education and inmovies and television shows set in schools.
By the end of the 1990s, whiteboards outsold chalkboards by a margin of up to four to one. Even digital whiteboards—computerized display boards with interactive features—outsold chalkboards by the turn of the millennium. Since then, chalkboards have all but disappeared from schools. Why, then, do they remain such potent symbols for education? Perhaps it’s because of what they represent: the idea of stable knowledge in a rapidly changing digital age.
If you’re trying to tell the story of a friendship, do you start when the two of you met? For Sam and me, that was in the late summer of 1996, after we became co-editors of the arts and entertainment section of our university’s student newspaper.
Or do you start the story with the day everything changed? Which was in 2014, right around his thirty-eighth birthday, when Sam was given a diagnosis of Stage III-C stomach cancer. For the enviably uninitiated, about nine per cent of people who receive such a diagnosis are alive five years later.
His example has taught writers of all sorts — not merely poets and novelists — about strategies of both pinpoint clarity and anyone’s-guess free association, of telegraphic brevity and ambiguous, kaleidoscopic moods.