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Rye Bread vs Multi-Color Pens

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

One of the hardest things to do when you're told what to do is to do it.

These days my daughter, Andreya, is in the middle of her end-of-term exams. She's studying furiously every evening and chatting for hours with her peers about algebra, science, and history. There are times when I watch her work and wonder, what was I doing at her age? I think we had the four-color Bic© pens

(red, blue, green, and black) that were marks of being uber-cool back in the day. At the same time, there was a popular school folder called the Trapper Keeper© that only the coolest kids had in their lockers.

Needless to say, I was not one of those cool kids.

Coming from a Finnish immigrant family background, we thrived on frugal living and rarely wasted precious resources on multi-color pens and fancy folders. At the time, being a first-generation Finn, I appreciated both sides of the coin. I knew Mom and Dad hated waste and thus, I managed to hide my brown-bag lunches of Finnish Rye bread with cucumbers and ham (a delicacy for me today) from the cool kids and their metal lunchboxes and thermoses filled with Spaghetti-Os© how I envied those Spaghetti-Os©!

Since lunch was the shortest period of the day, I usually managed to hide my lunch and remain generally unscathed from the mocking of any of my peers. It was my simple #2 pencil, a blue pen, and a plain paper folder that got me into trouble. Why couldn't I fit in and carry the newest and shiniest? One evening, after a meal of thoroughly Finnish fare, I gathered the courage to ask my parents for the coveted Bic© pen and Trapper Keeper© folder. Prepared for the worst, I steeled my nerves for the expected lecture about why we can't buy such things. Instead, I was met with gentle explanations of why, in the middle of the school year, we just couldn't afford to purchase new school supplies. Everything that was listed in the supply list had already been purchased, we couldn't do anything this year...but...maybe next year. While I was disappointed, I left the table without as much as a word knowing any pleading would then be met with sternness as my parents were "old school." Once they said their mind, that was it and I knew it. On the bus, as I made my way to school the next day, with my plain supplies in tow, I envied all of the other kids with their brightly-colored backpacks, lunch boxes, and multi-colored pens. I felt the heat rise to my cheeks when my friend Barbara once again asked why my things were so "old fashioned." I changed the subject. The weeks rocked on and by the second half of the year, due to the many problems these pens and folders were causing among the students, the school came out with a new set of guidelines requiring students to return to plain pens, pencils, and paper folders. Suddenly, I was in the "in crowd" without even trying. The day this was announced in school, a collective, and painful, sigh was heard throughout the campus. Later on that evening, at another fully-Finnish dinner complete with short, Scandinavian glasses filled with milk, I explained what had happened to my parents. I clearly didn't think things through for upon hearing this news, they proceeded to give me the "I told you so" lecture about the importance of keeping things simple for what felt like (to my 10-year-old ears) an eternity. My ears only perked up when they praised me for not resisting their decision months earlier to not purchase the envied supplies. Looking at my daughter now studying for her science exam, I value the simplicity our life here in Africa gives us.

She sometimes bucks the system and wishes for McDonald's©'s fries and wishes to shop at Claire's© to buy the latest teen jewelry, but she generally goes with the flow. Thanks, Äiti and Isä (Mom and Dad) for keeping it simple. In today's life of quarantines, closed airports, and never knowing what the morning might bring, that simplicity has meant more to me than I could have ever known. I didn't need the pens or folders anyway. *The next day: Andreya got an A on her science test.*

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