By Dick Duerksen

His intensity caught my attention, and I slid the camera’s telephoto lens toward the boy’s eyes.

“If you don’t get the eyes,” my photography mentor's voice rang somewhere in my ears, “you didn’t get the picture.”

I pressed lightly on the shutter release, just as I have done hundreds of thousands of times in schools all around the world. The auto focus was on the pencil, rather than the eyes, so I pushed the exposure button and spun the location dial four spots left and two spots up.

There he was, eyes in perfect focus, intensity still flashing as he pressed his stubby pencil into the paper.

I took several shots, glanced at the last one and realized the depth of field was wrong. I was photographing the intensity and laughter in his eyes, and though that was wonderful, the boy’s pencil was key to the story. Small, broken, cherished, used, and unsharpened, the pencil clarified his desire to learn everything, and to learn it quickly.

I changed the f-stop and shot three more photos. He looked up, his eyes glittering as the morning Mozambique light slipped into the classroom, orange and already warm.

His pencil was still for a second, then quickly moved again on the lined paper as he copied another word from the brand new blackboard.

He had never seen a blackboard, and had only dreamed of sitting in a classroom. Writing? With his own pencil? Impossible!

But he was writing, pressing through the paper with his own pencil, a bright yellow pencil his new teacher had given him three days before, a pencil that had already spent half its length, a pencil that still had enough lead to make black marks between the lines on his paper.

He was a student, and he had never been happier! I showed him one of the photos. He stared into the back of my camera questioningly, as if looking at someone he had never met. Then he sighed softly, and went back to work.

Later in the day I offered him a new long yellow pencil with an unused eraser standing tall and pink on the top of the pencil. He took it, turned it carefully in his hand, admired the eraser, and handed it back to me. Then, silently, and with a small smile, he nodded toward a young girl whose pencil was even smaller than his.

I moved to the other desk and handed the pencil to the other determined young student. She accepted it – with a flourish.