SparkNotes Blog

Auntie SparkNotes: I Can’t Stand the Sound of Chalk

Hello, Auntie SparkNotes,

I’ve just begun my biggest semester at the college I attend, where I have to take a really hard physics class. I grabbed all the materials I thought I’d need: textbook, notepad, flashcards, calculator, pencils, those really big erasers for when I invariably screw up and have to do an hour-long problem all over again, etc. I thought I was all prepared, but I was missing one key thing that I didn’t expect I’d need: earplugs.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had this HUGE problem with chalkboards, and while most of my college uses either whiteboards or projectors, for some reason our physical science labs are still in the 80s or something, and it’s really awful. I had a class like it before, but luckily the teacher almost never wrote on the board. This one does it ALL THE TIME! I can’t stand it!

I don’t even know what the problem is, but hearing any kind of chalky, scraping sound makes my whole body just want to twist and turn involuntarily, and I can’t beat it! Last semester I literally had to cover my ears and close my eyes and wait for it to be over, but this isn’t looking like it’s gonna work this time around, since literally ALL our notes are on the board. And even though the sound is the worst part, if I just SEE a blackboard, I start imagining that awful sound, and then… UGGGGH!

Auntie, sorry to write you such a long letter over such a stupid issue, but I NEED help, desperately, or I’ll fail the class before I even have a chance!

I’m not gonna lie, Sparkler: This is one of the toughest problems anyone has ever sent me.

And for what it’s worth, I feel your pain—and I’ll bet everyone else does, too. Most of us have an auditory trigger like this, something that’s innocuous to most people but nevertheless make you feel like you want to crawl out of your skin. (Mine is fingernails scraping on small-weave fabrics, which is why, if you ever ask me to help you put a fitted sheet on your bed, I might respond by clamping my hands over my ears and running screaming from the room. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

That said, don’t be discouraged: I firmly believe that you can beat this.

…Although the process of beating it may not be fun. Unfortunately, one of the most effective ways of dealing with is to train yourself out of your gut reaction—and that means more, not less, exposure to the hated sound. You bumped up against this in your letter, but it’s worth stating explicitly: You’re actually making this worse for yourself by dwelling on the auditory horrors of chalkboards. Every time you imagine that awful sound and cringe with anticipatory dread, you’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy (or in scientific terms, a feedback loop.) You endlessly psych yourself up for the agony of hearing the chalk scrape the board, until it finally happens and your brain supplies exactly the response you’ve been training it to give.


So, with that in mind, here’s what I’d like you to try: Go find an empty classroom in the building where your physics class takes place, and spend five to ten minutes doodling in a blank space the chalkboard. And if the noise bothers you, then take a pause, take a deep breath, and tell yourself, “I’m doing this.” (And then continue doing it, obviously.)

In case you’re wondering, this is a solution supported by science. You’ll be practicing a small-scale combination of cognitive behavioral and exposure therapies, which are designed respectively to a) change the way you think about or relate to an unpleasant thing, and b) desensitize you to it through controlled, repeat exposure. And if you do this every day for a week or two, it should improve your tolerance for the scraping of chalk in other contexts, i.e., in class.

Give it a try, anyway. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s your best bet for attacking the problem at its root and making it through the semester (not to mention the rest of your college career) in a classroom where chalkboards are in use.

And if it doesn’t work, you could always try earplugs. Or a pair of headphones and a white noise app that takes the auditory edge off the scraping of chalk while still letting you hear the lecture. Or [insert solution I haven’t thought of here; Sparklers, ya got anything?].

Or hey, perhaps all the chalkboards in the building could all just happen to fall off the walls and break into thousands of tiny pieces? Almost like somebody pulled them down and whaled on them all night with a sledgehammer! Not that you would do such a thing, nor would I ever suggest it. And I definitely would not recommend that you purchase your sledgehammer in cash, at a home supply store at least 50 miles away from your campus, under cover of darkness.

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