As a writer, I’d say my most valued tools are a sharp pencil and a fat eraser. Armed with the bipolar instruments of creation and deletion, I can embark confidently on any train of thought, no matter how unformed, then edit my ramblings, saving myself the public humiliations of flimsy first drafts and errant punctuation.
I suppose that’s why I’m so timid when it comes to launching into building projects at construction school: Mistakes made in lumber are more costly and permanent than those made on paper. That’s why, before each slice of the saw and turn of the screw, I find myself wringing my hands, fretting over fractions of an inch or degrees of an angle, lest I ruin an $18 plank of 1 x 6 fiber cement or even a $3 2 x 4.
By contrast, my colleagues in Building and Construction Technology class waste no energy fretting over what-ifs. With those guys, it’s more often ready-fire-aim, which is fine, because they’re equally prepared to repair any mistake. “A little caulk and a little paint make a carpenter what he ain’t” is a popular refrain in our workshop.
My favorite refrain, though, comes from our Egyptian colleague. A gifted carpenter and man of few English words, he spends his downtime—when other students are sharing YouTube videos and SnapChat memes—building furniture, such as a baby crib made from salvaged packing crates. No matter how detailed or involved his project, he invites the class novices to assist him. Grateful for his mentorship, we eagerly scribe his ornate curlicues with our awkward jigsaws or trace his intricate patterns with our shaky routers. How many times have I totally butchered his painstaking artwork and looked up embarrassed and apologetic, only to have him greet me with a cheerful, “No problem. Is no problem.” In his capable and confident hands, anything can be fixed.
How different I am from this unflappable artisan—who works at night to support a family, in an adopted country, in a foreign language—when it comes to sweating the small stuff: I do. He doesn’t.
But we do have one thing in common: We both love a fine-sharpened pencil.
Today, this cool carpentry mentor was teaching us to scribe the uneven profile of a wall onto a flat shelf so the two surfaces would meet flush. (Imagine trying to place a flat plank against a rustic stone wall. It’s not easy.)
He pulled out an old-school compass—the kind I used in geometry class, or the kind the Reverend John Donne employed as metaphysical conceit in his poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”
It was working like a charm until the pencil point snapped. The carpenter stopped in his track. Now, I have a reverential respect for a sharp pencil, but I have been around this journeyman long enough to assume a simple broken lead was no big deal. I smiled, shrugged, then met him with his own words: “No problem!”
My classmate scowled at the snapped lead, then looked up at me. Then back at the pencil, then back at me. After months of “No problem,” this simple hiccup was different. He tapped the blunt pencil on the surface and said in exasperated surrender, “No! Is problem.”
I knew the feeling. I’m lost without my pencil, too.