Promise of a Pencil is Adam Braun’s inspiring story of forgoing a lucrative finance career at the age of 25 to found a global not-for-profit, Pencils of Promise, that has opened more than 200 schools in impoverished communities. The book is part memoir, part call-to-action for anyone with a dream. Read an excerpt below.
My four months in Southeast Asia had come to an end, but the next leg of the journey was about to begin back home. On Ma’s eightieth birthday my family planned a big dinner in New York City. The night before, I asked her if we could spend some time alone.
“I want to share something with you,” I said.
She was curious. Although she was my grandmother, and we were close, I rarely asked to see her alone for private chats. Ma knew that I’d started Pencils of Promise and had been traveling back and forth to Laos. She was aware that I had taken a sabbatical from Bain, but figured I was just the traveling type in my twenties. Like all Jewish grandmothers, she was prone to worry and was completely opposed to my doing anything that required travel far away from her.
She would tell me, “Why do this, go to these places where people have so little, when you have such nice things here? Trust me, I know! I lived like one of them, so why don’t you stay here close to your family and be happy with the nice things you have?”
While I understood where she was coming from, I also understood that she didn’t know what motivated me. On this night, I would make it clear.
“What is it you want to share with me?” she asked, bobbling as she walked toward me.
I sat Ma down. She’s small, five feet three, and was wearing all beige. She always wears matching clothes, all purple, all beige, a monochromatic uniform. And she always says she doesn’t look good, but she does. She grabbed my hand with both of hers and started petting me.
“I want to show you what I have been doing,” I said. “I want you to know why I went to build a school.”
I took out what I prepared—three pictures. The first was of Nith, Nuth, and Tamund. I explained the story of how I met them one day while the school was under construction, and how excited they were to attend their first classes. I told Ma about how this school would radically change their lives.
“Oh, this is amazing.” She nodded, beginning to grasp some of what I felt.
The second picture was of the completed school in Pha Theung. Its white walls shone brightly against its red roof and blue shutters. “Oh, this is so much. So beautiful. You know something, this looks just like the school I went to! Before they made me stop going to school and sent me to the camps, this is what my school looked like,” she said in her Hungarian accent.
“Now I want to show you what motivated me. This picture is the reason that I went to all of those foreign places, traveled to all of these communities, and took a break from my job. This is what I wanted to create most in the world.” I showed her the third picture, which was of the large sign above the entrance to the school. She squinted to read the sign, but couldn’t without her glasses. “Wait one second, I get my glasses.” She pointed her finger on each word as she slowly whispered them aloud.
“‘Luang Prabang Education Department, Give Children a Choice, Pencils of Promise. 2009.’” She paused, looked over at me, and smiled. She then looked back and continued, “‘Lovingly dedicated to …’”
She covered her mouth with her hands as her jaw opened. Her hands began to tremble. She looked over at me and her eyes welled with tears. She looked back at the picture and continued reading, “‘Lovingly dedicated to Eva Braun …’” She burst into tears, and so did I. We tried to speak, but neither of us could talk. She just reached over and squeezed my hand. We sat side by side and cried tears of joy.
“This is so much. Why, why for me?” she asked.
“You did so much for me, Ma. You have been through so much. I couldn’t get you golf clubs or some gift certificate. I wanted to do the most meaningful thing I could for you, so that you would know that your legacy would last, and your survival will make the lives of others better. I started Pencils of Promise so that I could build a school and dedicate it to you.”
We cried and hugged, and after composing ourselves, Ma replied, “Adam, I wish I knew the words to describe this feeling. It feels like this is why I survived. I survived for this. It feels like it’s all coming back to me, everything I suffered for is coming back to me, but in good ways. All the bad things I went through were for these good things to happen.”
I nodded, still unable to speak, digesting the weight of what she had just said. We exist because of the sacrifices of those who came before us, but how often can we make them feel the full value of their impact?
Through this one school, I was now connected more deeply to my grandmother than ever before. It was only by focusing on creating joy in her life that I discovered the greatest feelings of happiness in my own. I knew that we could enable this same experience of building and dedicating a school for so many others, and in doing so we would give them the chance to honor the people they loved most. The vibrancy that PoP instilled in my daily life was contagious, and I could see it now flickering in Lanoy and Mimi and so many others. We now had to figure out how to get that flame to spread.