Usually the best, most memorable presents you receive are the simplest ones, given with thought and care. That is a lesson worth learning early and re-learning often.
It's a lesson my wife, Colleen, a teacher at Verner Elementary in the Riverview School District, tried to impart to her students at the beginning of this school year by telling them a story from her childhood. And one of them learned the lesson very well.
The gift of a pencil for a tiny hand can be a big deal to a child, especially for a pre-iPad child of the '70s who wants not just any pencil but a fancy, whiz-bang mechanical pencil. One year when Colleen was in grade school this was the gift she really hoped for as her birthday approached. It was like magic -- an item you could fill with lead again and again, and it would last forever.
Everything you own as a child you assume will last forever, and you also assume you'll never tire of any toy or present. Then we realize as we grow up that, sadly, we do get bored with things, including objects we'd once clutched tightly to our chests and even spirited away to secret hiding places.
Time passes, we get older, and those objects and toys that were once part of our everyday routine start to sit in the same place for days, then weeks and then months. Eventually we may even give these objects up, or they fall victim to a parent's desire to remove clutter, or they are found, years later, in the secret hiding place we forgot we ever had.
I don't think disinterest would have ever grown in my wife, however, toward her mechanical pencil. It was a present she would have cherished and used as long as possible, something she deemed to be one of the best inventions ever.
Her birthday wish for such a pencil that one year would have come true but for one problem -- like with many kids, curiosity wormed its way into her head. She had to seek out the gift ahead of time, before the big day, just to make sure there weren't any mistakes. It is very difficult for a child to fight off that curiosity.
Her parents made things incredibly tough because they placed some wrapped gifts on the china closet, totally out in the open, a couple of days before the big day. Colleen knew the gifts were destined for her, and she recognized one that looked suspiciously like a pencil covered in celebratory wrapping paper. This had to be it!
A little later, when no one else was around, Colleen snuck up to the china closet, carefully opened this one particular gift, and there it was -- the mechanical pencil she had asked for. In re-tellings of this story, a listener gets the impression it gave off a faint, enchanted glow and music swelled in the background as she gazed upon it. Maybe that part didn't happen; your mind remembers things differently as you get older. But my wife certainly didn't forget what happened when her birthday arrived.
The grand day finally came ... but there was no pencil. Colleen was devastated. What had happened? She came to realize that while she had re-wrapped the gift and put it right back where she had found it, she must not have handled the wrapping part as skillfully as she thought. Colleen knew her parents knew the culprit, and they knew Colleen knew. So there was no birthday mechanical pencil, and definitely no triumphant music.
Colleen still enjoyed her presents that year, but as the years passed a small, pencil-shaped void remained. Until last month.
Each year at Christmas my wife receives modest, thoughtful gifts from her students. Just before the holiday break a student named Rylie who had heard her story excitedly gave her a small, wrapped present and insisted she open it right away. So my wife did.
This time, she had permission to open her gift early. And what was it? A mechanical pencil.
This has quickly become one of our all-time favorite school stories. It includes a touching gift from a student who remembered a quick story from almost four months before; a teacher finally able to scratch "mechanical pencil" off her wish list; and a reminder that it is the thought behind a gift, not its size or cost, that makes it special.
John DiRicco of Penn Hills, a training administrator at Carnegie Mellon University, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org