The Power of a Trashed Pencil

Feb 27, 2009

She was a janitor at a school in India.  Her husband died soon after her marriage, she didn't have any family in the area, and she struggled with the responsibility of raising her kids.  For the last 20 years, she's continued to sweep classrooms at local schools.

One day, though, she had a radical idea: I want to give.  It was followed-up by a reasonable yet confusing thought: But what can I possibly give?

When she narrated her desire to a friend, he told her a story.  "Gandhi used to write many letters.  One day, Kakasaheb Kalelkar, a famous Indian author, saw him writing with a tiny pencil and immediately offered Gandhi a bigger pencil from his pocket.  Gandhi politely said that he didn't need it.  The next day, he saw Gandhi scrambling to find his pencil and Kakasaheb again offered him a pencil saying, 'Your pencil was so small anyway.'  Gandhi gently replied, 'But a child had given me that pencil.'  And he carried on the search for that small pencil."

Sharing this story, he tells this sweeper woman: "You sweep schools everyday.  And so, you must see all kinds of small pencils that kids throw away.  Why don't you collect those and I'll give them to little kids who can't afford pencils and teach them how to write and draw."  She liked that idea.  In addition to pencils, she even collected erasers, sharpners, and a few miscellaneous oddities.  And every so often, when her bag gets full, she hands it off to her friend to give away to the needy.

That was her ritual.

When she found out that I was in town (I'm good friends with her kids), she insisted that I come over for a meal.  Due to my hectic set of committments, I wasn't able to go over for a meal but told her that I'd definitely join her for some snacks.  So I went for breakfast one day, with my friend who originally shared Gandhi's story with her.  She had cooked up a simple feast of love, which we thoroughly enjoyed!  We gave her a shawl, explaining that someone had gifted it to us the night before and we couldn't really use it.  And as we were leaving, she handed us a pink, almost ripped, and heavy plastic bag.

Confused, I opened up that plastic bag, and saw those small pencil, erasers and sharpeners.


It's hard to stay balanced, in the presence of something so valuable.  In the next hour, I had to address a couple hundred people, and shared the story of a sweeper woman.  As I opened up that pink plastic bag and held a fistful of these small pencils and erasers, it was hard for even the emcee to hold back the tears!  I left the bag out for people to keep a material token of this sweeper woman's lesson -- it matters not what you give, but the amount of love you put into that giving.  Everything, including the ripped plastic bag, was gone before I could take a second look.

The humble offering had a certain power that simply can't be bought.  I felt it, everyone felt it.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."