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.
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.
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.