It was just a small white box made by an usher. An origami box that was folded intricately into a series of folded triangle lips on each of its four sides. Deep enough to hold the various loose change that seemed to gather here and there in the office, from out of nowhere. So when it was commencement time for Minneapolis Community Technical College (MCTC) on May 21, 2003, there had been quite a few coins that were dropped into this tiny well. I was amazed by the strength of this copy paper box and its depth, holding a collection of dimes, quarters and nickels. I didn’t see a penny. Too rare to find, maybe?
The day of the MCTC graduation was cold and rainy. The commencement did not start until 7:00 p.m. but at about 2 p.m., a young woman with a light lavender and gold graduation gown folded with cap on top came into my office looking a little lost and a little early.
“Is this where the MCTC graduation is tonight?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “But not until 7 p.m.”
“I wanted to get here early,” she said. And stood waiting for more conversation.
After a little while she asked if there was a place to buy a bag of chips.
I sent her to a building next door but the machine was broken. I then sent her to another one with no luck there either.
“Well you know McDonald’s is only another block down,” I explained feeling bad that I had sent her to two different places.
“Well I really only have money for a bag of chips,” she said. “I just need to have a little something before graduating.” “Is there a gas station around? They have those cheese and crackers 3 for $1.”
She spotted the little box with money in it and asked “what’s that?”
“Oh one of the ushers made the box. It’s origami.
‘But I mean where did the money come from?”
“Oh it’s just money that has been found here and there,” I said.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,”
“Well its just spare change, you know,” I said.
No, actually she didn’t. I thought of sending her to the student union where she could get more places to pick for her money. I pulled out some of the quarters and dimes and gave her an extra dollar from the bowl. It was as much as I could gather.
She came back into the office a short while later announcing that a vending machine man gave her a free Sprite too after she went to the gas station.
I asked her who was coming to her graduation tonight. She said no one. Her family couldn’t make it and her boyfriend had to work.
Her dreams were to open up a retail shop and an even grander goal was, “to help all those people starving in Africa. There’s gotta be a way to get food to those people.” she said. “I’d really like to do that,”
As I look at that spare change cup today, I still think of her and I think of the times I had passed over a penny on the ground.
“Find a penny, pick it up and all day long you’ll have good luck.”
I had always been superstitious in a way not to pick up a penny. I was just being silly. I never thought until that day how a penny or even that handful of change meant so very little to most of the people I knew including me. For this young woman, each coin in that bowl meant a little more prosperity in her life. You just didn’t keep spare change in a bowl like that because there never was any spare change. I am sure she used every bit of spare change to get her degree.
At work, I occasionally clean out our lost and found and see all the lost items that are never claimed. Nice stuff too, but only the weird stuff gets claimed. People leave their nice mittens, even jackets. They just go buy another one. I wonder how it is that the people, who would never pick up a penny, still complain that there is never enough.