Shared Stories: Never underestimate the power of a penny

Mary Lou Garcia reflects on the big difference that a penny made in her situation at one time, and on all of the other times that a penny has the power to make life so much more pleasant.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns


By Mary L. Garcia

I used to wonder before why the term "lucky penny" had been coined. When I see a penny on the street or sidewalk I have the choice to either pick it up or not pick it up. What value does it have? Is it worth my having to bend my arthritic knees for a penny? Would it really give me luck? What is its true value?

While on a summer school assignment at a middle school, teaching teens and pre-teens with special needs, I had scheduled walking field trips to give them some practical knowledge about the Norwalk community.  

Our first walking field trip was about a seven-minute walk to a convenience store. The students brought their own money and picked the items they wanted to buy: chips, cookies, Slurpees, etc. One by one they lined up, and assisted by the para-educators, they handed their money to the cashier and got their change. 

When it came to Adrian’s turn, he saw that the items he bought amounted to $3.01. We looked at his money and told him his $3 was not enough and that he needed a penny more. Seeing that Adrian was puzzled and didn’t quite understand what it was all about, one para-educator quickly handed a penny to him, and he in turn, gave it to the cashier. 

Adrian’s face beamed as he walked out of 7-Eleven. The para-educator later told me that she had found the penny by the sidewalk as we were walking. 

I couldn’t help but smile thinking back about the time that one lucky penny that had saved me $800. 

My very first job in Southern California, as a new immigrant in 1982, was a teacher’s aide position in a special education class at a public high school. My salary was $4.25 an hour.      

After a short stint as a teacher’s aide, I decided to take on a different job at a parochial school where my children were enrolled. It was not long though that my job at St Bernard’s School ended and summer break followed. I took the opportunity to file an unemployment insurance claim and received a total of $800 from the Employment Development Department, aka EDD. 

I was pretty happy with the unemployment pay but I received a letter in the mail asking me to appear in person at the EDD office where I would be given an opportunity to explain why I had quit my first job to take on the second job. If my quit was not a “reasonable quit,” then I would have to pay the $800 back to EDD.  

My second employer from the parochial school was also summoned to appear. I had earlier contacted the EDD to understand what would constitute a “reasonable quit.” EDD explained the term as “quitting one job for reason of a higher pay in the succeeding job.” 

For me the pay was immaterial. All I had wanted was to transfer to a job site where my children attended school. Little did I know that pay would be an issue. I did my homework and brought my paychecks, and showed up at the EDD office. 

The representative from the parochial school did not appear, which was not necessarily to my advantage. I felt rather unsettled, but nonetheless I presented the paychecks from each of my two consecutive job assignments. I had quit the first job which paid me $4.25 per hour to take on another job at the parochial school for $4.26 per hour.

It was self-evident, a penny more per hour when I quit constituted a “reasonable quit.”

Indisputably I won my case. I did not have to pay back the $800 to EDD! Truly, “A penny saved is a penny earned”, as the wise Benjamin Franklin had quipped. 

The saga of the penny continues. Recently on the CNN news, a man from Texas was fined for speeding nine miles over the speed limit in a residential area. He brought in two buckets of pennies worth $212 and dumped the pennies on the counter of the municipal court, protesting his fine to be unfair. It took three hours for two coin-counting machines and staffers to count all the pennies; he was told that he exceeded the fine by $7.81. His drama went viral on social media.

For us regular, mainstream folks, waiting in line at the grocery store is not a newsworthy occurrence. But a penny can still make a difference in our day. When someone ahead of me is short of a penny or two, I reach for my coin purse and pay it forward. Sometimes it is I who is short of a penny or two and somehow, I always have another person behind me, to pay that extra cent that would complete my transaction. 

I don’t ever want to underestimate the power of a penny. One can never ignore that copper-zinc coin, shiny or dull. How can I? One side encapsulates the words that I believe in, the word LIBERTY with the profile of one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, and most importantly, words that I strongly value on the penny: IN GOD WE TRUST.