Asingle pencil can write 45,000 words, or draw a line that stretches 35 miles.
It’s a basic classroom tool, but one most people take for granted.
John Mika did, at least until the day when as a substitute teacher, he asked a group of third-graders at the city’s Waterfront Elementary School to take out their pencils for an assignment.
Just three of the 27 students had one.
“I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t have pencils?’ ” Mika recalled. “They didn’t think anything of it. They looked at me and, I can still see several of them, their looks said ‘This is who we are.’ ”
“Well, this isn’t what we want you to be,” he added.
Now, Mika wants to make sure every child in the Buffalo schools – and thousands in the surrounding communities – have pencils when school starts in September.
So he ordered 1 million of them, and plans to distribute 10 to each child in the Buffalo schools. There will be plenty left over for students in other school systems who need them.
“When Jesus fed the 5,000 people he wasn’t picking and choosing,” said Mika, who runs the Teacher’s Desk, which provides free school supplies for students in need. “People were hungry. Kids need pencils.”
He calls it the Pencil Project, and so far it’s his most ambitious effort since opening the Teachers’ Desk in 2011.
Last school year, roughly 3,700 teachers from 140 of the area’s poorest schools – those where at least 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch – came to the Teacher’s Desk to “shop” for free school supplies for their students. It’s one of the only places like it in the state.
Most teachers leave with $800 in brand new items, everything from basics like pens and crayons to stuffed animals they can give as rewards to their students. Last school year, the Teacher’s Desk gave out about $2.6 million in products.
The pencil offer will be available to all of the schools served by the center. Mika hopes to give away the full million.
“Our kids need so much,” said Sue Raichilson, a teacher at Riverside High School. “They’ll be happy to get a bag of pencils.”
Mika, a retired General Motors worker, networks with manufacturers and donors to keep his supply full.
“I’m a decent teacher,” he said. “But I’m really good at getting stuff. I figured I could affect more lives this way.”
About a week ago, he discovered he could get a good deal ordering pencils in bulk and got the idea for the project. He sought out donors, including First Niagara Bank, and placed his order. Flexo Transparent Inc. donated bags to pack the pencils to send to the schools. And NAEIR, a national organization that helps nonprofit groups secure supplies at a low cost, got him a great deal on the first shipment. He also gets pencils from Dixon Ticonderoga Co., considered the best in the business.
The pencils rolled in by the pallet.
Mika put out a call on Facebook for volunteers to help him count and pack the supply. Dozens of people showed up this week to get them ready for the students.
They lined the pencils up a hundred at a time, each volunteer measuring out the amount between two yard sticks taped to the table, then scooping them up and bagging them.
“As a teacher, I would have a pencil factory if I could,” said Karen Polakiewicz, a teacher at International School 45. “I have a pencil can on my desk and if it’s full at the beginning of the week, they’ll all be gone by Friday.”
Ten pencils a piece. Roughly 450,000 words for each student, well more than double the number defined in a standard dictionary.
“Each pencil can write thousands of words,” Mika said. “Just think of what they can do with that.”