Chalking Things Up

I’m being charitable when I say that I never warmed up to whiteboards.

In one sense they are much smoother to write on and easier to erase, but ‘smoother’ and ‘easier’ aren’t always reasons to like something. I still prefer a traditional chalkboard, and I’ll wager that I always will.

The one pictured above is by far the oldest chalkboard I’ve used on a regular basis, and the surface has become very smooth and polished after more than 60 years of being erased, written upon, and erased again (I imagine that slate chalkboards may be another one of those things that improve with age and use). Plus, there’s a sense of history associated with an old chalkboard; no matter how much you wet it, you can’t quite clean off everything that was once written on it. The remains of old ideas accumulate in small imperceptible layers, creating a chalky patina, adding to the board’s overall substance and strength.

Though not very strong, whiteboard markers have a chemical odor to them, and the ink becomes particulate and flakey when it’s being erased. Invariably I’ll brush up against it and get it on my clothes. The same is true of chalk to some extent, and in any other place it would look out of place. But I’ve grown accustomed to having chalk-dusted hands and clothes, especially after spirited classes where you can all but keep up with the rapid exchange of ideas. In contrast, having the ink from whiteboard markers on you looks like you can’t prevent yourself from bumping into things, or worse, that you might be on the short end of a practical joke.

But despite my preference, I’m just glad I haven’t developed an interest in vintage and discontinued brands of chalk. Yet.

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5 Responses to Chalking Things Up

  1. Elaine says:

    There is something “right” to me about seeing white notes and staves on a black or greenish background. There is something inherently “wrong” about the reverse when it comes to looking at music on a wall. Also, I love the feel of good chalk. There’s a kind of “tooth” to it. The slippery and slimy feel of a marker on a smooth board has never worked for me. It makes my writing sloppy. I also don’t like the colors.

    The chalkboard in your picture looks mighty inviting.


    • Sean says:

      The funny thing about this board is that the staff lines are a bit too close — it’s difficult for students in the back of the class to see them. This, and the fact that the four staves are placed the way they are, makes me think this board may have been “converted” for music use.

      I’ve wondered about the design and manufacture of staff-lined chalkboards: are musicians consulted about the placement and spacing? Is this one so old that the lines were likely applied by someone at the school at some point? Are there standards among manufacturers?


  2. I too dislike the smell of markers and the skating-rink feeling of trying to write on a whiteboard. And I remember the luxury of genuine slate from elementary school and occasional “trips to the board.”

    About chalk though I am ambivalent. I have finally figured out that I need to wash my hands after teaching a class. Otherwise — no joke — the chalk residue ends up ruining the left side of my index finger.


    • Sean says:

      +1 for “skating-rink feeling” 🙂

      I once tried one of those chalk holders (like a clutch holder, but for chalk) because the kind of chalk that was available at the time was drying out the fingers on my right hand so much that it was affecting my playing. So, I know what you mean about the washing.


  3. Gunther says:

    I don’t have only fond memories of school but I have always enjoyed the sensory impressions of using a chalkboard, and using colour chalk in maths and physics was great. I still haven’t got warm with whiteboards, and more than once I have thought about covering the one in my office with three layers of chalkboard paint, inventing the magnetic chalkboard in passing 😉 By the way, I still remember my astonishment when a teacher in the 1970’s unpacked a wiper blade to speed up drying.


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