With a knot in my stomach, I scrutinized the lists of copious and oddly specific school supply items that I must procure for my children. Will 4 dozen glue sticks be the key to a quality education? Where can I find pronged plastic folders in all the colors of the rainbow? And the pencils. So many pencils. Do they really need that many?
Once, when I was a kid, I stood with my mother in a checkout line and dared to ask for a pack of gum. Fully prepared for her to say, “no,” I had already composed a whine-infused dissertation on exactly how that gum would improve my quality of life. For good measure, I intended to pepper it with artfully crafted statements regarding my disdain for her dictatorial parenting style as well.
“No.” She shook her head. “We can’t afford it.”
She had played the poverty card. As a literal thinker, I knew I couldn’t argue against that excuse. It occurred to me that if we couldn't afford a 25 cent pack of delicious Bubble Yum, we were in dire straits. We weren’t just poor, we were super-duper poor. It was only a matter of time before we moved into a cardboard box—and it probably wouldn’t be one of the nice ones, either.
I went to school the next day, as if my whole life wasn’t a lie. I sat at my desk, bored as usual, and decided to get a jumpstart on my homework. If I finished my work in class, I’d have more time to play outside after school. For you younger readers: playing outside was a thing kids did back in the old days.
My fourth grade teacher was in the middle of a lesson—one I should have been listening to. Instead, I picked up my pencil, and started solving the math problems she had assigned for homework. I was nearly halfway done when I heard her call my name.
She was a fearsome sight. Thick bands of crimson blush spread across her high cheekbones and periwinkle shadow stretched all the way up to her drawn-on brows. She dressed her lashes in multiple coats of industrial strength mascara. Stephen King’s Pennywise had nothing on her. She was the most terrifying clown I had ever seen.
My teacher had zero tolerance for goofing off of any sort. She seemed to delight in doling out her unique brand of justice swiftly and without prejudice. Chatty students received detention slips, and daydreamers were condemned to washing the blackboard. If she caught a student with gum, she forced that child to wear the chewed-up wad on his nose for the duration of the day. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about that. Wearing gum was a problem for the rich kids, not for me.
I looked up from my work, barely able to meet her glare. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Throw away your pencil right now!”
My lip quivered as I stood and hurried toward the metal trashcan by the door. Adding to my shame, my corduroy pants made rude noises with every hasty step I took. When my pencil clattered against the rusty bottom of the bin, I hung my head and shuffled back to my desk, cringing at the soundtrack provided by my obnoxious pants.
I couldn’t fathom how my mom would react when I told her what had happened. We couldn’t afford chewing gum—how on earth would we acquire another pencil? Not just any pencil either, it would have to be a No. 2. Everyone knows that’s the very best kind. It was surely more valuable than Bubble Yum. I did my best to hide my distress, wiping away each tear before anyone else could see it. But I was unable to disguise the sniffles, and soon my teacher was glaring at me again.
She escorted me out of the classroom and into the hallway. “Why are you so upset?”
I looked at her great big clown face and immediately succumbed to a full-on ugly cry. “I don’t think my mom can buy me another pencil.”
She knelt down and hugged me. When she pulled away, I noticed thick black streaks cutting through her red blush. She was crying too. Maybe she couldn’t afford a new pencil either.
We wiped away our tears and returned to the classroom. She resumed her lesson as if nothing had happened and I dutifully paid attention. While she spoke to the class, she walked over to my desk and deposited a brand new, freshly sharpened No. 2 pencil. Then she patted my shoulder and flashed a rare smile.
So yeah, I’ll buy the scores of required pencils for my kids and a few extra—just to be on the safe side. I think I’ll buy a pack of bubble gum too.
Chrissy Lessey is the bestselling author of The Crystal Coast Series.