Laughing In The Golden Years – The Red Pencil Box


Maryann Nunnally, Contributing Writer

By:  Manyann Nunnally



In the fall when my brother Wally and I were about to return to school for the new year, my mother took us to the city to shop for shoes and school supplies.  Wally hated school so he was not very excited to shop, but I loved everything about school and was happy that I was going into the third grade.

After we had purchased our Buster Brown oxfords, we walked to Woolworth’s five-and-ten-cent store to get paper, pencils and crayons.  Mom picked out the Crayola crayons with twenty-two in the box and the yellow pencils with the orange erasers.  Paper was double-lined primary paper which was the one required at our school.  Finally, she decided that we needed pencil boxes to keep our supplies neat and readily accessible in our desks.  My pencil box had a lid that opened all the way, made from some kind of reinforced cardboard and bright red in color.  I fell in love with it instantly.

The first day of school, which happened soon after Labor Day, I walked up the railroad tracks and then up the sidewalk through town to our old elementary school.  Once inside, my teacher assigned desks to us and instructed us to put away our supplies .   Mrs. Lawless was a very strict teacher who would brook no nonsense.  She wore long skirts and high button shoes which had gone out of style in the 1800s. Parents either loved her or hated her because she did not have a flexible bone in her body.  My parents were in the love column, and my mother said I would really learn in her classroom because Mrs. Lawless was consistent to the max.

Sometime during the next few weeks, a new boy, Darryl, joined our class.  He was a skinny, dirty child with a head that came to a point.  His clothes, which he never seemed to change, consisted of a wool coat over overalls and a striped hat that he pulled down over the point on his head.  Daily Mrs. Lawless reminded him to take off his cap and then sent him into the boys’ room to wash his hands and face.  I don’t think that washing-up did much good, as the dirt was so ground into his skin that it was difficult to tell what color he was.  On top of that he never brought lunch with him. Soon Mrs. Lawless was giving him a lunch from her big tapestry bag because there were no school lunches in those days.

Then, to top it off, Mrs. Lawless changed Darryl’s seat to be next to me so that I could help him with his numbers and his reading.  Since he had absolutely no supplies, he simply borrowed mine.  I was appalled because I did not want his grimy hands touching my things.  Finally, one day in desperation, I gave him my red pencil box with the crayons, pencils, and other supplies in it.  I said, “You can keep it, Darryl.  I don’t want it anymore.”   Of course, I wanted it, but I didn’t want to touch anything that he had touched.  It gave me the shudders.

I thought my mom would be really angry with me for giving away my box of school supplies.  That was a time when we were really short of money, and I walked home full of worry and explanations.  To my surprise, mother was okay with my generosity, though the truth was that I was not generous, just disgusted with poor Darryl’s dirty hands and clothes.

When I told my mother the truth, she said, “Never mind.  Sometimes when you do something for a selfish reason, it turns out to be for the good.”

Mom had purchased extra crayons and pencils during our shopping visit.  Of course she had, because the chance of returning to the city during the school year was remote if not impossible.  Knowing that our crayons and pencils would disappear or get used up during the year, she made sure we had enough on hand to always have some.  But what about my red pencil box?

Mother always said she was not very artistic, but the truth is she was extremely clever when she had to make do.  Emptying an old cigar box where she kept odds and ends, she covered it with a left-over piece of fabric and sewed it in place under the cover.  The cloth was pink with tiny red roses all over it.  I thought it was absolutely perfect.

When I returned to school the next day, Mrs. Lawless mentioned my new box and said I was a lucky girl to have such a clever mother.  I carefully placed my new pencil box in my desk and never let poor Darryl touch it.  He moved away before the year was over and took my red pencil box with him.  That was okay with me, as I certainly never wanted to put my hands on it again.