The Stubby Pencil

Asan, who is six, loves my son Aidan, who he summons daily by standing outside our house and shouting “Ten!”; “Aidan” has morphed in the Chichewa accent into “eh-TEN” and then attenuated, by Asan at least, into, simply “Ten.”

Asan likes to draw: the first time we met him, he clutched a small composition book, the kind American college students used to write their essay exams in (do they still do this?) and a pencil sharpened at both ends that was, tip to tip, perhaps one and a half or two inches at most.

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Look at that tiny pencil! crowed one of my sons. (Asan wasn’t offended; he doesn’t understand any English, which is, as it happens, no impediment to his friendship with my children, who don’t understand any Chichewa.)

Inside my house there are no fewer than 144 full-length pencils, complete with erasers. I know this because I purchased and packed a Costco container of Dixon Ticonderogas, the kind that’s impregnated with anti-microbial something-or-other, because you never know what microbes may lurk upon the frequently-Purelled hands of American schoolchildren.

Have I ever used a pencil until it was one and a half or two inches at most? I do not think, in the 28 years that I have been scribbling, doodling, drawing, and writing, that I have. I have owned hundreds if not thousands of pencils, pencils of varying colors and hardnesses for sketching, shading, drafting, writing, filling in Scan-Trons and SATs and absentee ballots. But I have never removed the eraser so as to make use of that last quarter-inch of lead; never gripped that last inch tightly, awkwardly so as not to waste a bit.

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Asan grips the last inch and a half or two inches at most pencil and draws a car, writes his name, copies Aidan’s name and then Graeme’s. I think of the pencils thrown out when they are still functional but too stubby to be held comfortably, of pencils lost in the bottoms of backpacks and the back of public-school desks, of the pencils lying in junk drawers until their rubber erasers crumble, and I think of the stories Asan could write, of the pictures he could draw, with 144 brand new pencils.

And I realize: the stories we hear are the ones written by the people who have pencils to write them with.

And I realize: sometimes poverty looks like a one and a half or two inches at most pencil–or no pencil at all–and that sometimes wealth looks like 144 brand-new ones, with thousands more just waiting.

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7 thoughts on “The Stubby Pencil

  1. Very well said.

    It reminds of my times drawing in Guatemala while surrounded by children. Half of them were mesmerized (like Graeme!) by the emerging image; the rest would stare at my little pouch of colored pencils and art pens. My kneaded erasers really blew them away,as they’d clearly never imagined such a magical thing.

    And then there was the time I brought art supplies to the children at Las Obras Sociales de Hermano Pedro. They’d make a scribble or two, then push the pad to me and say, “usted lo haga, usted.” It was as if they had already decided that drawing, like so many other things in life, was for the few and not for them.

    So Asan with his wee little pencil stub is my new hero.

  2. In reading this post again I was struck by another example of the different worlds in which we live. You mention “junk drawers,” which I imagine are well-known to all of us (except perhaps to Martha Stewart and her disciples). How many Malawian homes have “junk drawers?” For them there is no junk.

  3. It grates on me when I hear people talk of throwing out junk because I figure one person’s junk is another person’s treasure, even here in the States.

    Pencil stubs in particular have always held a fascination for me. I sometimes wonder what the pencil had been used for to get down to that size, who it was that kept picking up the pencil as it got smaller and smaller. Now you’ve introduced me to one of those people. Thanks.

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