Rich Walton at Camp in Afghanistan

Magic Pencil

Since my return from Afghanistan, I am a substitute teacher for grades K-12 with most of my time spent in grades 4-6. It is a constant struggle for me to figure out how to keep my students engaged, under control and interested in what I am presenting and when I ask them to do something and the child replies “why?” the response like a parent of “because I say so” doesn’t carry much water in the classroom as a sub. How different from what I experienced in Afghanistan.

What I saw, experienced and learned in my 4 years in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor from building schools, living and working with the local people experiencing the daily trials and fears unimaginable to most Americans and then seeing the impact these schools made on the Afghan children’s lives where the children are craving to learn and do whatever it takes to get to school even if it consists of walking miles in hand-me-down sandals or threats from the Taliban.

When I feel my class losing interest and control, I like to settle them down by telling them stories of my time in Afghanistan. One of my favorite stories is “the Magic Pencil”. I ask the students “what do you think was the most asked for item from me by the children at the school construction sites?” Their answers are “money, food, water, clothes.” Yes, All good answers! at which time I pull a pencil out of my pocket and hold it up in the air and state “it was a pencil!”

The Magic Pencil

Why would it be a pencil? In Afghanistan, many children cannot read or write and they have seen the pencil and pen touch paper or wood or anything and do magical things wherever their hand leads it. As I would go out to projects in villages, whether it was building a school, Medical clinic or some other structure, I was amazed that within a few minutes of arrival to the site I would be swarmed by Afghan children of all ages. I’d always wonder, where did all these kids come from and how did they know I was here. Even sites that were way out in the desert or mountains within minutes of my arrival there would be all these children. Where did they come from? No matter the weather…Scorching sun or Freezing cold, as soon as I arrived at the job site, got out of the vehicle, or walked from the helicopter, I’d be immediately surrounded by a mass of children asking for water, money, typical things, but the NUMBER ONE item I was asked for was a writing pen or pencil.

At first I couldn’t believe this. Remember that it is believed that 80% of the Afghan people, including adults, cannot even read or write their own language. The children did not speak English but they sure knew the word “PEN”. It seemed odd to me at first that they cherish this one item the most. Why would they want a PEN of all things? Was it to sell the pen or pencils in the bazaar? No. I learned from an Afghan interpreter that to many of these children who could not read or write, the Pen was Magic. It was a Magical instrument, like a Harry Potter Magic Wand that could do Magical things like write or draw.

So, when I traveled in Afghanistan, I began to carry lots of pens and pencils for the children. But there was a downside when the children changed from a friendly group to a shark feeding frenzy, surrounding me pushing and shoving, grabbing and pulling on my back pack and clothes. Like sharks trying to tear me apart just to get a PEN. Even in small crowds I had to make sure I had no pens, pencils or anything hanging on my body that someone could grab. I had to make sure all my zippers on my back pack were closed and not easily opened. I was once mobbed by a group of Afghan children when one boy actually reached into my pocket and stole my Pens and money and ran away. I ran after him for a bit, with security trailing me, until the boy lost me. I learned the children had become expert Pick Pockets. Because I was considered a High Value Target, the soldiers or guards protecting me would immediately have to intervene and begin pushing and shoving the kids away from me before I got hurt or lost important items. They were always concerned for my safety as I could get stabbed or shot or blown up by a suicide bomber. What children in the United States, such as here that I am teaching, would have thought that a simple Pen or Pencil would magical and be of such importance to be the symbol to Afghanistan children of knowledge and education. Pens and pencils so important to uneducated children, that just like bullies, the older children would grab the smaller children’s pencils I had just handed them. So unless the crowd was only a few children the new policy was that I was not to hand anything out anymore. It broke my heart.

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