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Ticonderoga Pencils and Poverty

When I was a kid, I didn’t get Ticonderoga pencils very often.

The reality is that my mom usually couldn’t afford Ticonderoga pencils. Instead, I got whatever was cheapest. It makes sense, really. When pot roast is a treat rather than a regular dinner, it seems foolish to pay extra for something like pencils. Say what you want about poor people and the seemingly stupid financial decisions they make – and my mother certainly made her fair share over the years – but they understand scarcity.

I don’t think I realized just what a lasting impact this mindset had on my life until just a few years ago. My wife was not yet my wife, and she and I had just gotten serious about one another. We were buying groceries together for the first time. When I suggested that we grill some hot dogs for dinner, she agreed, asked me what kind we should get, and said that her default was Oscar Mayer. Without even thinking about it, I had already begun to reach for the disgusting red store brand, and I told her that I my default was still poverty. We chuckled, but it was at that moment I realized that while I had left poverty, poverty never really left me.

I have come to call those things that still lurk somewhere in the back of my mind the “artifacts of poverty.” Even though they are not necessarily present on the surface, in the right circumstances, they still present themselves. Sometimes they come out unexpectedly. Sometimes, I don’t even realize how much of my daily behavior is influenced by having grown up in an environment of scarcity. I still hesitate to fill my car fully with gas. I prefer shopping several times a month for groceries rather than stocking up once a month.

Neither of these things are rational, because we have a very comfortable middle-class life. Filling up with gas isn’t going to deprive us of food later in the week, and spending a couple hundred bucks on groceries at the beginning of the month isn’t going to leave us without money for an extra or unexpected bill later in the month. However, I have been so socially conditioned by poverty that my focus is still on surviving today, and maybe tomorrow.

I am incredibly fortunate that this is no longer the reality for me, and it will hopefully never be the reality for Betsy and I as we build our family. However, the fact that I am no longer poor does not mean I no longer think about it. I’m not really scarred by it, but I am compelled to think about it because even today, there are kids in our community who are experiencing the same systems of scarcity that so deeply influenced me when I was a kid.

I become acutely aware of how much my life has changed since then when I think about our household shopping patterns. I am also reminded, when I think of these changes, just how severely the deck is stacked against the poor and working poor in our current economy.

Betsy and I are frequent users of Amazon Prime. It pains me to admit this, given our love for and support of small and local businesses. I know Amazon’s business model is harmful to smaller businesses, which is why we do not shop at Amazon with a clear conscience. However, in our rural community, we have little choice apart from Walmart for household essentials. We cannot procure many of the organic or healthy retail items in our kitchen without driving an hour or taking time off work to shop at the single limited-hours health foods store in our community. For us, it is easier and cheaper to throw things into our Amazon cart and have them shipped, at no cost, right to our door.

In addition to the convenience, we also save a whole lot of money by buying many of our essentials via Amazon. I wear Dickies brand pants to work in the woodshop and in the yard, and I can get them for around twenty bucks a pair on Amazon. If they have my size in stock at the local Walmart, they are nearly $28. I paid $18 this spring for a good pair of chicken coop boots, but the cheapest I could find them locally was almost three times that amount. All told, we save at least several hundred dollars a year shopping via Amazon, not counting the free two-day shipping. For this privilege, we pay $99/year.

My mother could have benefitted from a convenient discount retailer like Amazon Prime, but even if it had have existed in my childhood, she couldn’t have afforded a membership. She used to talk about how wonderful it would be to shop at Sam’s Club, but she acknowledged that she had neither the money for a membership nor the cash flow to be able to buy anything in bulk. Discount retailing like Amazon Prime and Sam’s Club, you see, is reserved for those who can afford it. Isn’t that a hell of a paradox?

Those who didn’t grow up in poverty really can’t understand the daily realities of being a poor kid. Many who grew up poor, it seems, have purposefully or inadvertently forgotten how hard it is to be an impoverished child. In the decades following the Great Depression, we came to value the stories of those who escaped poverty, and many of those who managed to escape it began to argue that even though they grew up poor, everyone else around them was also poor, so they didn’t really know. This is not my reality, and I’m relatively confident that it isn’t the reality of many of those who tell their stories that way, either. Somewhere along the way, when we can afford Amazon Prime and Oscar Mayer hotdogs, we assume that our becoming able to do so was inevitable. As a result, we sometimes forget the very real struggles of those around us whose stories have not unfolded in the same way.

I have been able to afford good hot dogs for a whole lot of years, but sometimes, I still find those artifacts of poverty hiding somewhere deep inside my mind. I can also afford nice office supplies, and I started buying Ticonderoga pencils as soon as I started working. Truth be known, I should have probably stuck with the crappy store-brand pencils during the first few years of my working life, because I was certainly still eating cheap hotdogs. For me, though, using a Ticonderoga pencil was a statement. I suppose it still is.

In so many ways, a Ticonderoga pencil is a powerful symbol for children. Today, they are about a quarter each when purchased from Amazon, and even more expensive when purchased locally. The cheapest pencils are a third of that price, and even cheaper during back-to-school sales at Walmart. Therefore, Ticonderogas still represent a class divide for children who shouldn’t have to think about class.

Much like poverty in general, I was often very aware that my school supplies were cheaper than what most of my classmates had. It wasn’t just the pencils. I got cheap notebooks and cheap backpacks. My shoes were cheap, and my clothes sometimes came from secondhand stores.

Even if it was more my perception than the reality, I remember feeling like I was inferior because the stuff I had wasn’t as good as the stuff most of my classmates had. That sort of thing weighs on a kid. In today’s social-media-and-consumerism society, I can’t imagine how much worse it must be for the kids whose parents can’t afford the nice things.

These days, when I pick up my Ticonderoga pencil, I am reminded of the journey I have made over the last 36 years. Neither of my parents finished high school, but I am a college professor with three college degrees and a fourth in progress. Even though Ticonderogas were a rare treat, I learned how to use a pencil pretty effectively anyway as evidenced by my own academic and professional successes. Somewhere inside me, though, is the second grader who worried himself into a headache almost every day because he was able to look around and know that almost everyone around him had better stuff. Somewhere very near you, too, is a second grader whose parents can’t afford nice pencils and who feels inferior because of it. What will you do about it?


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