Wednesday, August 12: Pencils

Pens here are a valuable commodity. Bribing an officer with a pen will grant you a free pass at a highway traffic stop. Lonnie carries a bag full of pens whenever he leaves the house. We’re not talking fancy pens. We’re talking the kind of pens leftover at the end of a convention, or that nearly every business in the States prints with their name. But here, such things are a valuable commodity.

It’s not that pens aren’t made here. It’s that they are expensive and much, perhaps most, of the population does not have access to the kind of place that would sell such amenities. So giving pens away is kind of a Big Deal.

*       *       *       *       *

In the village, the same applies to pencils. Students will sometimes bring their own pencils to school, always carefully knife-sharpened and often inscribed with a name. At the school, we have a stock of pencils for the kids to use during class. M— and I sharpen pencils in turns throughout the morning. When you have only two pencil sharpeners and a roomful of kids with remarkably deep pockets, you don’t let the children sharpen their own pencils. I figure we spend at least a few hours weekly exercising our finger muscles in this fashion. Turns out, it’s possible to rub blisters sharpening pencils. Who knew?

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Shrinking pencils

(I highly recommend reading the following segment as though it were a dime store detective novel.)

We had a problem: our pencils were shrinking, in number as well as stature.

To tell the truth, neither of us had noticed that pencils were disappearing, only that they were shrinking. We only found out about the missing pencils by a fluke. M— had taken me house calling in the next village over. She was looking to buy a chicken to cook for an overnight guest. The compound was a big one, with a house of considerable size, a chicken coop, and woven reed fencing around the yard. Potted elephant ears added some green to the otherwise neutral tones.

The woman brought out a slip of paper and a pencil, handed them to M— to write a receipt. M— and I shared a startled look: we knew that pencil. We had both sharpened it in the last week. It was not hard to find the culprits: two familiar faces peeped around the hut door, disappearing into the shadows in high-pitched fits of giggles when M— and I turned to face them. M— handed the woman her receipt and we left. We would come by later to pick up the chicken.

Walking back to the schoolhouse, we pondered what to do. We couldn’t have the kids taking pencils home with them, had in fact expressly forbidden it. We couldn’t afford to supply every household in the surrounding areas with pencils. And so, walking up the road, M— in heels with a trussed and remarkably calm rooster under one arm, we developed a plan.

The next day at noon, we implemented the recovery effort, a two-man PSA: Pencil Security Administration. The children mobbed the table where they keep their backpacks, while I surreptitiously palmed the keys to the door. The children rushed the door, only to find it locked. M— and I coaxed and manhandled them into some semblance of a line and proceeded to frisk their pockets and search their bags in an operation much like the program’s namesake TSA. Like its namesake, the PSA proved ineffective at its intended goal. We recovered only three pencils that day and none in the next two days.

Our pencils have stopped disappearing though, and the kids will form a line. Mostly. M— and I still sharpen the pencils by hand, and they are still shrinking, but at least we have the same number. We still laugh about it sometimes, in the quiet after the kids have gone. Mostly, we forget about it and wonder what adventures will happen next in the life of a village school.

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