“I don’t have a pencil.” The oversized middle school boy explained his plight to me, while staring into space and not doing his assigned work. “My mom’s dead,” he said matter-of-factly, offering this as the reason why he was without a pencil.
I swallowed the lump in my throat, refusing to let the adolescent see my look of unchecked sympathy, because no teenager wants to be the object of anyone’s pity. I grabbed a pencil off of the teacher’s desk and handed it to him with an encouraging smile.
The other students in the class were quite vocal about the fact it had been a couple of years since the juvenile had lost his mother, and that he always offered up this excuse when it came time to do work. But two decades ago, I was a substitute teacher without knowledge of the teen’s history.
Yet as a former single mom, I did understand that school supplies can be a precious commodity for disadvantaged children. Specifically, as back-to-school season looms on the horizon, there is often enormous stress for a family with financial struggles. There are back-to-school clothes and shoes, pictures, school fees, electronics, and of course, back-to-school supplies.
Last year, USA Today ran CNBC’s David Gernon’s article, “The surprising expenses of back-to-school shopping” on Aug. 15, 2017. “Parents of elementary school students can expect to pay an average $662, up 1% from last year,” Gernon reported “Middle-school students’ parents will fork over $1,001, a 4.6% increase.” High school students’ back-to-school expense will be even higher with clothes and shoes being their priority items.
On July 12, 2018, Good Housekeeping posted Carol Picard’s, “The Ultimate Back-to-School Shopping Lists From Kindergarten to College.” The Good Housekeeping associate editor compiled recommended lists for different age groups complete with Amazon prices for the products. For example, Picard suggests a kindergartner might need: a pencil box ($5), crayons ($5), colored pencils ($3), washable markers ($6), No. 2 pencils ($6), pencil sharpener ($5), erasers ($6), glue sticks ($5), blunt-tipped scissors ($3), plastic folders ($15 for six), assorted construction paper ($9), wide-ruled notebook or pad ($4), tissues ($4), backpack ($20 and up), and [possibly] a lunchbox ($17). Hopefully, most kindergartners won’t require a list this extensive, but there are still quite a few supplies a child needs to begin the school year. And these items cost money, money an economically disadvantaged family doesn’t have.
Many caring teachers donate their own hard-earned cash to buy supplies, but they can’t possibly fill the vast demand. That’s why, local and national organizations, churches, companies, and individuals step up to the plate by donating back-to-school items to guarantee area students will have what they require to start their year off right. When I see the advertisements for back-to-school products, I am grateful for these generous human beings who contribute their financial resources to equip the community’s less fortunate children.
So, recently when I saw the Internet headline, “Teacher’s Unusual Final Request for Her Funeral Goes Viral,” I had to read the inspirational story about Tammy Waddell. The late Mrs. Waddell was a dedicated teacher who lost her battle to colon cancer on June 9, 2018. According to the Faithit article, “Two weeks before her death, in lieu of flowers, the 58-year-old asked that funeral attendees bring backpacks of supplies for children in need.”
When Tammy’s cousin, Dr. Brad Johnson posted a photo of the backpacks filled with supplies lining the chapel where the late teacher’s Celebration of Life was held, thousands of folks reacted to the emotional twitter picture. Johnson’s touching tweet about his late cousin read, “… A teacher to the end.”
The obituary of the Georgia educator describes her, “Tammy served the children and community of Forsyth County for thirty years as a paraprofessional and elementary teacher in Forsyth County Schools. She had a passion for literacy and believed that every child deserved an opportunity to learn.”
But children can’t learn if they don’t have the necessary supplies to do classwork. In honor of Mrs. Waddell and of the countless compassionate teachers in our local school systems, may we band together once again to ensure no child is without a pencil like the teen I met as a substitute teacher. Instead, let’s make sure every student has the tools they need to have a productive and successful school year.
Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and an inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.