The Pencil


It is common to think of kindness as ‘helping another’: to help an old lady to cross the road, to help the disabled granny push his wheelchair around. Our ideas of ‘kindness’ often rely on seeing the other individuals as weaker than ourselves, and therefore, ‘in need’ of our help. Yet, I realise that genuine kindness and grace do not always have to be vertical in nature. In fact, helping doesn’t mean always being the light, the fire source or the ‘spark’ in the crowd. Mirrors are helpful too, yet they do not speak or glow. They merely stand and reflect, and sometimes, that is all the grace that is needed to help one tide through life.


“Give me the pencil! I want to write the word myself!” Ah See snatched the pencil away from Mr Sim, his creative writing tutor, and wrote the word ‘obedient’ on his foolscap paper; the word slightly protruding the top and bottom borders. Smiling, Ah See exclaimed, “…you see, I can spell by myself!”

Mr Sim frowned slightly. “Aiyo[1], why so ugly? Come, I hold your hand and let’s write it properly.” Mr Sim held Ah See’s hand, and traced the word ‘obedient’ on the next line. The strokes, this time, were forcefully graceful. The ‘b’ and ‘d’ held the curls that Mr Sim always liked as a child, perhaps, for its slanted defiance from how it should have been written. Yet, for Ah See, the word must be properly positioned within the confines of the lines provided – if not, why provide the lines? The completed word ‘obedient’ stood neatly, as it were for any of Mr Lim’s writing. “You see, nice right?” Mr Sim’s face lighted up, “words are your weapons in creative writing, so you must write them neatly so the teacher can read and give you points.”

Ah See nodded his head and he did not return a word. 


It was the day of his English examinations. The composition topic was a familiar one. The composition pictures[2]told a story of a school boy handing his work in early. Ah See wrote his essay, detached. He threw in all the ‘good phrases’ he knew like a well-rehearsed drill. His face was glowing, as radiant as his newly washed school shoes. He was well-prepared for the examination. The composition was boring, but he smiled at the thought of himself scoring well for this piece. Now, as he reached the last paragraph, he wanted to use the word ‘obedient’. His mind echoed back to the time when Mr Sim held his hand to write the word. Ah See frowned slightly. For most of this composition he had managed to write it neatly, now for the word ‘obedient’, he chuckled to himself and slanted the word out of the boundaries of the foolscap line. There was an ineffable feeling of an opening, or a blossoming in his heart. 


Ah See received an A for his composition. He showed it to Mr Sim. What caught Mr Sim’s eye was the word ‘obedient’. There was a familiar, yet defiant ring to it. The differential pressure of the pencil’s lead on the paper in spelling that particular word jolted Mr Sim back to scenes of children playing games in the school field, with a thousand indecisions and revisions to ‘what’ and ‘how’ they want to play a game. Yet, with imprecise game rules, the children always seem to play and have fun anyways.

Mr Sim patted Ah See on the head. Mr Sim gave a resigned smile, saying, “I know you anyhow write this word ah, but good word to use…”. Ah See giggled. It was not the ‘A’ that he received that gave way to such light in Ah See’s eyes. Ah See kept the paper to this day. Whenever he read the paper, his eyes would pause at the word ‘obedient’ and he would find the light that nobody, ever, could snatch away from his eyes.


As I sat back against the soft linen cover of my red velvet sofa, the cotton threads caressed my skin. The linen threads contoured my body shape and seemed to lock me in an ever graceful embrace, no matter how I may be. I recall a morning in the year 2018. That day, I had not been stoned for my act of folly, but unmeritoriously passed over. Had I lost anything, then, it was my sense of pride. The key is safe in my pocket now.

As I sat back against the soft linen cover of my red velvet sofa, the cotton threads caressed my skin. The linen threads contoured my body shape and seemed to lock me in an ever graceful embrace, no matter how I may be. I recall a morning in the year 2018. That day, I had not been stoned for my act of folly, but un-meritoriously passed over. Had I lost anything, then, it was my sense of pride. The key is safe in my pocket now.On that Tuesday morning, the clouds were centre-parted, leaving a stream of blue through the heavens. The sun rose and shone through my rose-tinted window, giving the sunray a glint of red, had one paid careful attention to it. I was always known to be religiously careful and neat. At home, everything was arranged impeccably. At school, I daresay – or daresaid  –  my desk was the neatest amongst all, and no one had complained about a speck of dust on it. My form teacher and CCA[3] teacher, Mr Lim, must have been particularly impressed.

It was 1pm during the English lesson, and Mr Lim strolled into the classroom. He shot me an unusual stare, as if beckoning me to come forward. The shy person that I was, I averted his gaze and pretended to look down at my English textbook. “John, please come forward.” 

I was perplexed. I hesitantly stood up, the squeaking sound of my chair ever more apparent as I pushed it back. I traced the straight line on the classroom flooring, and the tiles led me straight to Mr Lim. I thought to myself, with the tone of his voice, it must have meant that I have done something wrong. Little did I know that life had its curves, and Mr Lim proudly announced, “John, I have been watching you for the past month, and I want you to be the chairperson of the school’s guitar ensemble. You will be given the key to the school’s guitar storeroom, where all our guitars are stored.” 

I was left with a gaping mouth, and only after hearing the cheers and rounds of applause from my classmates, did I regain my senses. I smiled, trying to contain a fizzling pride within me.

Like a Coke bottle that had been shaken, pride popped up from within. I could not resist the temptation to show off the rusted, gold key as if it were a first prize trophy I had won. I waved it around my friends during the 3 – 4pm school break, during extra-curricular hours[4], or whenever I encountered a friend I had not said hi to that day. My friends greeted me with a straight smile, lips pursed together; it was not a pout.

Night came, as we were dismissed from our extracurricular classes in school, I placed my hands, again, in my pockets to feel the old, rusted skin of the gold key. A wrinkled gold key. Yet, as I seek to set my fingers to grasp that familiar object, there was nothing in my pockets. My heart started beating faster and faster, and my fingers ran whirlwinds around in my pockets. There was no key to be found. My face drained, and I remembered seeing flashes of white.

Alone, whilst everyone had left, I charged at tables and chairs like a bull. I searched up and down, left and right, over and under – every spot for the key, which in my mind, sparkled and glittered a radiance I had never seen before. I ran circles around in every room I had been at. Nothing. Resigned, I sat down and looked upwards at a foggy, impalpable golden key – it must have been in my mind – now clean of its rust. The gold radiates a light; it became brighter and brighter, till it was so bright that I could not see it anymore. I closed my eyes, and opened them. I saw Mr Lim. Hastily I stood up, and walking weakly, slight sway from left to right, I opened my mouth – but he interjected, this note was on my staffroom table. I opened the note, and it read, “John – I saw the key dropped after you waved it at me. I want to return it to you, but you have already left before I could say anything. I am leaving the key at Mr Lim’s desk.” I looked down, ashamed.

Mr Lim extended his arms to pass me the key; raising his voice, he said, “John, I wanted you to…” I did not catch what he said after that. I clung on to the key, and my body shape must have grown to now include the contours of the key. Mr Lim seemed to be chastising me, but I could not digest what he was saying. I felt as if I had once again seen the light of day, even if it was night-time here. 

[1] A Singlish expression

[2] In the Singapore examinations for Primary 3 – 4, picture compositions are often used as prompts.

[3] CCA refers to co-curricular activity. It is compulsory for every Singaporean student under the formal school system to take part in a CCA. 

[4] Singapore students have extra-curricular hours during school time. These are interest-based activities, for instance, playing the guitar, which will take place between 3pm – 6.30pm.

About the Author:

Mitt Ann is a writer based in Singapore. He enjoys working with children. His works can be found at

Feature image by blauthbianca / Pixabay