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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

What is a pencil?

For a short period of time I worked as an assistant teacher in a Montessori school, the same school that I went to as a child. I was working with kindergarten kids, children from four to six years old. Everyday was a little adventure, somehow they managed to fill every hour with drama, tears, and fights, and then quickly switch to laughter, games, and a lot of love.

I really believe I learned more from them that they did from me. One day, the teacher made a circle with the students and placed a pencil in the middle. Then she simply asked, “What is this?”

They all answered the logical way and said it was a pencil, then kept silent. The teacher asked again, “What else is this?” The 5 year old students where thinking, some where questioning what she meant, and some others started to get distracted with whatever they found.

Suddenly a boy said, “It is also wood!” Then another added that it also has yellow paint. And so on, and so forth, with all the materials and elements of the pencil. Another kid screamed (he even stood up from his chair), that pencil needs a tree because it’s wood, and that tree needs water to grow.

With little help from the teacher, the children where able to imagine the trees that needed to be cut down by a lumberjack, who needed food to be strong, so therefore someone had to grow the food and transport it to a supermarket so the lumberjack could buy it and eat it to cut the trees and make the wood to have a pencil. They imagined more and more. They had no limits, they started to question each other on what else needed to exist for that pencil to be there. Their imagination went so far that they ended up talking about planets. One clever kid concluded: This pencil is everything.

Watching 5 year olds explore and understand the concept of oneness left me in complete awe. Most people may not think about this in their entire life, and others (including me) tend to forget easily. This past month has constantly reminded me of this exercise, watching those kids understand something so complex, and yet so simple.

My time here has made me see this more clearly and closer than ever. It has also made me realize how frightening this idea is, especially since we act like individuals that are not integrated. When in reality, it is inevitable that everything is connected, and everything to be one. But it is beautiful too, being here in this little piece of land surrounded by water, that same water that marks the border between Laos and Thailand, that same water that feeds millions and kills some others, the water we pollute and then consume. The Mekong River is one, but it is not been treated as that.

So then I wonder, how would we treat a pencil if every time we used it we saw the entire world participating on its existence? How would we treat our rivers and resources? How would we treat each other and ourselves? I really don’t know the answer to this, but I’m a challenging myself to be more conscious, and right here and right now is the perfect time to practice. To be aware of this beautifully fragile concept of oneness. And I think to myself that if kindergarten children where able to do it, I must be capable too.