of pen people 

illustration by 


by Jamie Xu

february 2021

Gripping it awkwardly, the pencil’s hexagonal physique rested funnily around my small knuckles in the first grade. Nonetheless, I persisted and kept scribbling in my letter tracing booklet. Each page was laid out with a letter atop the page, both lowercase and uppercase, followed by rows of blank dotted lines for us to write on. “Practice makes perfect,” Mrs. Schmidt used to say. I carefully encased my ‘m’s and ‘n’s below the dashed midway line and shaved off excess cliffhangers on my ‘y’s and ‘g’s. If I made a mistake, I comfortably twirled my pencil a 180 and erased. I’d get a gold star for my efforts, flip to the next page, and repeat. This was my formula for first grade success. 


Sixth grade success was a little bit of a tougher code to crack. My classmates outgrew pencils and tossed them alongside other childhood remnants (wax crayons, heelys, and bad bubble gum etiquette). They picked up pens like a pretty new toy that came in endless varieties - .07, blue, black, gel, ballpoint, cheap, free off the sidewalk… 



The use of pens was the physical manifestation of that confidence, the bat mitzvah of their newfound, adult, mistake-free lifestyle. Pen people, I called them. 

The switch was puzzling to me. The only people I had ever seen write with pen before  sixth grade were adults: the checkout lady at Costco who put a smiley face on my mom’s receipt, teachers who marked up my error-prone worksheets. These were grown-ups and they chose a much more unforgiving tool to do their grown-up tasks. On a pen, there was no undo button, there was no 180 degree twirl, everything was simply there and irreversible. I believed that adults had magically reached a point in their lives in which they didn’t make errors anymore. The use of pens was the physical manifestation of that confidence, the bat mitzvah of their newfound, adult, mistake-free lifestyle. Pen people, I called them. 


Wanting to fit in with the other middle schoolers faking their maturity, I picked up my first pen. The concept of not being able to methodically craft my letters felt foreign. It was the same awkward weight in my hand I had felt with pencils, but this time, there was no backspace. Trying to overcorrect for all the accidental marks I couldn’t erase, I ran my pen over the same outline again and again, until my marks grew into a doodle. The doodle grew thick with its own confidence; the previous scraggly draft still visibly poked through. The outpour of jet black ink announced itself on my page, twisting into its own shape. Not having to worry about erasing became freeing. 

I thought pen people used pens because they were perfect and perfectionism created confidence. But I think to master penmanship is to master the innate imperfection that pens call upon. The allure of pencils was the same thing that drew me to childhood itself - the impermanence of my marks. But alas, it was time to grow up, to accept mistakes as they were, to go on without the compulsion of erasure, and to move forward on the page.

Jamie is a student at Washington University in St. Louis studying music and linguistics. In her free time, she enjoys cooking new recipes, hiking, and playing piano. She can be spotted at the Webkinz Clubhouse or at her desk in some truly abysmal posture. She can be contacted at jamiesxu@wustl.edu

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