The Lesson in the Shells

I was on my way back to the United States after a trip to Irian Jaya to observe relief efforts after a 1976 earthquake. The jumbo jet landed on a runway that dominated a tiny South Sea island--one of those inexplicable stops neither for picking up nor dropping off passengers, or even taking on fuel. Airline personnel herded us under a wind- and sun-faded wood canopy where we sat on benches with our cameras and our fatigue. On three sides of us lay hundreds of yards of shell­strewn sand and the beauty of the endless sea. Behind us wound a few narrow streets of squalor. Almost immediately, we were besieged by the island's bronzed children. They had long, jet black hair, dark eyes, and gleaming teeth. With their hands full of shells, they hard sold everyone.

"Dollar!" They would say, and when people looked shocked they laughed.

"Nickel!" They would then say, giggling.

Some people bought shells they could have picked up themselves only a few feet away.

"Don't do it," an older man said wearily. "These kids are supporting their parents' drug habits." I had been so used to declining the beggars of Irian Jaya that it was easy to turn away these little paupers. One boy started at a dollar and went to fifty cents, then a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and even a penny before he gave up. I didn't need or want any shells, and though I enjoyed him and smiled at him, I shook my head. He moved on to success with someone else.

At the edge of the tiny sales force stood a little girl with a face so radiant I can still see it two decades later. She couldn't have been more than five years old. When the rest moved on, she continued to stare at me, then she approached, her tiny hand crammed with three shells, each about the size of a golf ball. She smiled and held out her merchandise. I smiled and shook my head. That's when she said the word in her own tongue that I could not understand. I assumed she was saying "cheap," or "dollar," or "deal." I shook my head again and she reached closer.

She pleaded with me now, repeating the word over and over. How these kids had been trained to pull at heartstrings! Yet I would not be moved. I shook my head again and saw her tears form. Very well done, I thought. Almost worth a sale. But no, I was too sophisticated for that. She moved away, shoulders slumped and tears streaming. She squatted nearby and cried, not looking at me.

She had me; she had won. I pulled two dollars from my pocket and went to her. What was this? She wept even more, and now it was she who was shaking her head. And she repeated the word. Confused, I interrupted a missionary's kid involved in another conversation to ask her what the word meant.

"It means `free,"' she said, turning back to her conversation. I was stunned. The little girl looked at me warily. I pulled my hands from my pockets and showed her my empty palms. Then I repeated the word as a question, and she beamed as she handed me the shells.

Copyright,2000 Jerry B. Jenkins, The Story Tellers Collection. Sisters, Oregon, Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2000, p. 13 -15.


Jerry B. Jenkins is a novelist and biographer who has written ten New York Times bestsellers and whose work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Parade, and dozens of Christian periodicals. He is the writer of the bestselling Left Behind novel series (Tyndale), and Hometown Legend, also a movie. He and his wife Dianna have three grown sons and live in Colorado. Although most people think of Jerry as a fiction author, the story happens to be true.

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