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Holten: Chalk this one up to Annie

Kevin Holten1 / 2
2 / 2

Is there anyone that doesn't know what chalk is? Probably not, but when it comes down to it, do you REALLY know what chalk is or what it's made of?

If you're over 30 years old, you probably think chalk is something used for writing on chalk boards in classrooms and locker rooms. If you're under 30, you probably think it's something used to draw pictures on sidewalks. If you're a Los Anglian, you think it's the stuff they use to outline the bodies of gang members who are shot in the street -- an all-too-common occurrence.

I've never been that fond of chalk because my elementary, high school and college teachers used to put homework assignments and baffling mathematical formulas on black and green boards with it while big kids tossed dusty erasers at us from across the room, just missing our eyes.

Worse than that, teachers who were particularly angry at us used to write so hard with chalk that it would squeak or break in half in their hand, which was not only a little scary but seemed slightly insane to a kid who was still plenty of years away from shaving, driving or playing "she loves me, she loves me not," with a new girlfriend.

Of course, the chalk used in school classrooms comes in those cute little slender sticks approximately one-third of an inch wide by 3 inches long. They were originally formed into sticks for the convenience of artists and the way they did it was to grind natural chalk to a fine powder, then add water, clay as a binder, and then various dry colors. After that, the resultant putty was rolled into cylinders and dried.

Even though our hairy cavemen ancestors were the first ones to start using the stuff, chalk wasn't commonly used in classrooms until the 19th century when class sizes began to increase and teachers needed a convenient way of conveying information to as many students as they could at one time.

But what's really cool about chalk is that it has a lot more uses than just writing on chalk boards.

For example, you can rub a piece of white chalk into a stain in your shirt, let it soak up the grease for a few minutes, dust off the excess, wash it like you normally would and its dust will get into the fibers and absorb the oils, making the stain easier to wash out.

In addition, you can wrap a small bundle of chalk in cheesecloth, tie it off and store it with silver to absorb excess moisture and keep it from tarnishing. You can also do the same thing with the tools in your toolbox.

If you rub some chalk on the business end of a screwdriver, it will be less likely to slip as you turn the screw. And if you hang a bundle of chalk in your closets and cabinets, it will keep them from getting damp and musty because the chalk will absorb excess moisture from the air. Plus, if you draw chalk lines around your doorways and windowsills, ants won't cross them for some crazy reason.

Chalk is basically a cousin of limestone, which is made up mostly of calcium carbonate, and calcium carbonate comes from a tiny marine organism called plankton; which means that a sea once covered wherever it is that you find chalk deposits.

Though you might think new technology is tossing chalk aside, recent studies show that teaching with computers and overhead projectors is less effective than using chalkboards because chalkboards are more interactive, progressive and fruitful.

Still, whatever its use, Annie Praus, a 14-year-old who is about to start her freshman year at Dickinson High School, might have recently taught me the greatest chalk-related lesson ever when she told me, "Life is like a chalk drawing, with no eraser."

Holten is the manager of The Drill, which is a part of Forum News Service. Email him at