I started my professional career teaching 5th and 6th grade science, health, and physical education. It was a time when there were only two styles of notebooks: spiral bound and three-ring. If you wanted information on something, you went to the encyclopedia. Class work and homework were completed using a state of the art #2 pencil or a BIC pen if you got the teacher’s permission and were very neat.
The bane of my existence was the stubby pencil. For some reason, kids clung tightly to those that were ground down to a condition where little but graphite, brass cap, and a hint of an eraser remained. Most would not make the appetizer list on a termite menu. While regulators in the old west took on horse and cattle thieves, I made it my appointed duty to rid the upper elementary school of stubby pencils…and I was good at it. Students knew if they brought one into my classroom, it could be swapped for one of the new pencils kept in my center drawer as long as the old one went in the wastebasket. I was doing my part to protect the community from the inherent dangers of the potential stubby pencil epidemic. It’s hard to say how many cases of carpal tunnel syndrome my crusade prevented, but it had to be in the tens. Stubby pencils would not be the last windmill I jousted, just one of the more meaningful.
My first mission trip was to San Jose Succotz, Belize, a small town near the border with Guatemala. Part of our work was to paint the interiors and exteriors of three elementary school classrooms constructed by previous mission teams. Our first day on the property was the day after school had adjourned. Teachers were moving books into storage and preparing their rooms for the summer hiatus. A number of students had returned to help their teachers put away teaching materials and clean the rooms.
The facilities at the school were basic, if not meager, by our standards. There was no electricity in the classrooms and the open windows had no screens, only heavy wooden shutters. The walls were cement block and the floors rough-finished concrete. The wood-framed blackboard at the front of the room was the only visible teaching aid. The boys in the photo were cleaning the floor by sprinkling water from a plastic bowl then sweeping it with a broom that should have been retired long ago. This process was being repeated in each of the classrooms. It was easy to see how much the students cared for their teachers and school.
The principal had provided us with all the supplies needed to paint the interior and exterior of each room. Interiors were to be covered in a light gold and the exterior with a combination of garnet on the bottom third of the wall and the light gold on the top two thirds. We found a level, measuring tape, and a string to aid in the placement of the line, but we didn’t have anything to mark it with. The classrooms being painted were not in use yet and there were no school supplies in them, so I went looking for a pencil in the room where the boys were working.
The teacher looked up from her desk as I walked through the door. When I explained what I needed, she opened the center drawer, ran her hand under some papers for a few seconds, and presented me with the sorriest looking stubby pencil I had seen in years. The eraser was gone and the point was going to need some immediate work from my pocketknife. The stubby was all I had and it would have to make do. As I thanked her and headed toward the door she called to me. “Sir, please take care of that pencil and return it to me when you’re done. I need it to start school next session.”
It had never occurred to me that all the stubby pencils I threw away during my teaching career would have value for someone else. My abundance had made me blind to the needs of others. That pencil did not leave my sight until I returned it.
Upon returning home, I shared the story with anyone who would listen. With the help of my friends, several thousand dollars were raised for school supplies and I know the teachers and students in San Jose Succotz put it to good use. Small pencil, big life lesson.