Monday, February 13, 2012

Glen's Superpower

I've heard it said that everyone has a superpower. Glen's was sharpening pencils. He was the best I've ever seen. He knew it too. How couldn't he? There came a time in that year, 2004 I think it was, that the rest of the class simply gave up on doing it themselves. Whenever their pencils got dull or broke or a new one was needed, they brought it to Glen. And I let them. It was an arrangement that worked for everyone. The student got his or her pencil sharpened quickly and without hassle. Glen got to do what he loved to do. And I didn't have to sharpen any pencils myself or put up with the incessant grinding associated with repeated failures.

Glen had a method. He told it to me once, explaining it with the same level of passion experts in other, more respected fields possess. He did this over coffee during an afternoon recess. He wouldn't tell me anything without the coffee.

You stick the pencil all the way in and hold it firm, Glen said. Firm, he repeated. Grip it close to the entry hole, leaving only enough space to account for the pencil being drawn in by the spinning blades. Never let it spin. He took a drink. Letting it spin was a rookie mistake. Did I understand?

I said I did.

A pencil that spun got an uneven cut. You'd end up with one good side, the lead nice and sharp, and at first glance you'd think you did it. But turn that pencil just a little and you'd see the lead on the other side still covered with wood. So hold it firm, let the blades do their job. Glen drank more coffee.

There was something else I needed to know. Something important. Something attitudinal, not technical.

You had to show the sharpener who was boss.

Not only did you hold that pencil firm and not let the blades turn it on you, you pushed in as you sharpened. You fed the blades the pencil. Not too hard, that could break the point off, but steady, forceful. It was the left hand, Glen insisted, that did the work. True, the right hand was the one that was moving, rotating the handle around and around. But like any great magician, Glen said, the real business was done where those in the audience rarely thought to look. There was technique in the handle turn, easy and consistent, not too fast, not too slow, but it was what you did with that left hand that made all the difference.

And then Glen leaned close to me. He checked behind him. And he told me the difference between a good pencil sharpener and a great one, one who got it right every time.

The secret, he whispered, the thing he never told anyone else, was knowing when to stop. Most kids stopped any old time. For them, it was like chewing food or brushing their teeth. They did it for awhile and when they felt like they'd done it for long enough they quit. But if you sharpened a pencil too long you could break the lead all over again. And if you stopped too early, it was almost impossible to pick up where you left off.

So how did Glen know when to stop?

He listened. A sharp pencil made a different sound than an dull or nearly sharp one. And when you heard the change you stopped immediately. You pulled the pencil free, and it was perfect. Glen always heard the change.

I asked him to describe it to me, those sounds, the difference between done and not done, perfect and something quite not. But Glen only smiled and told me you either heard it or you didn't. And then he thanked me for the coffee and went outside.


Ray Veen said...

I'm not smart enough to understand what this means in the greater context of life, but I can sense that it's surely profound.

How you been, Mr. Murphy?

Paul Michael Murphy said...

I am well. It's just about this kid who can really sharpen pencils.