I have a pencil sharpener in my classroom. It’s much like any other pencil sharpener that I could find in just about any other public school across the United States. It has a silver canister that has been taken on and off so many times that it can barley hang on to its cracked gray base, a crank to drive the gears inside the canister, and a pin wheel of holes to accommodate different sizes of pencils. This non-descript sharper, however, has a much deeper meaning for me than merely honing a pencil to a point. It is a metaphor for life, holding in it the key to understanding the bewildering world around us.
I make every attempt to shelter this pencil sharpener from normal wear and tear as possible. One day I noticed that the screws holding the sharpener to the wall were, by degrees, becoming looser and looser. At that point I decided to retire this relic to the counter in the back of my classroom thinking that no one would ever try to use it. Much to my amazement, many students did attempt to sharpen their pencils, but to no avail. They found it too difficult to hold still, keep the canister on the base, and turn the crank all at the same time. Watching my students attempting to sharpen their pencils became an opportunity to observe the human condition in action. And after a conversation with one of my students it was transformed into the Taoist Pencil Sharpener.
He was a kid I had before. There are few students who can bring out the best in me, and he was definitely one of them. His chiseled features belong more in a Hollywood action movie than a social studies classroom. He moved with an economy and grace that suggested confidence, not arrogance and style, not fashion. He was a kid who was fiercely independent, and enjoyed sparring with me during class discussions, making them more entertaining. In fact, he was suspended for a couple of days and left a message on my voice mail that said, “Newson, your class is going to be really boring without me.” He was right.
He walked back to the counter and attempted to sharpen his pencil. After giving it about a minute, which is longer than the average student, he saw that I was watching him with a huge smile on my face. He gave me an exasperated look and I walked over to help him. On the way to the back of the room, it came to me how I could take this somewhat benign situation and use it to incorporate what we have been talking about in class: Taoism
“This is a Taoist Pencil Sharpener,” I said, gently took the pencil from his hand and inserted it into the sharpener. Now using the Taoist Pencil Sharpener is so small feat. I hold the pencil with the pinky and ring fingers of my left hand, and the sharpener with the index, ring finger, and thumb of the same hand. While cranking slowly with my right I continued.
“One of the basic tenants of Taoism is that the world is the way it is, and it’s our perception that makes things bitter or sweet. When one does not understand this basic principle he/she is easily frustrated and angered, which only clouds the mind making some tasks even more difficult. One has to understand the true nature of the sharpener, its lack of stability, the worn out shaving canister, and its feeble cracked base, in order to achieve the desired results; a sharpened pencil.”
I pulled the pencil out holding it up for us to see that not only was the pencil gradually becoming sharp, but it was on the way to a perfect point. He looked at me with a half-cocked smile I’m sure thinking something like “here he goes again,” or, “just sharpen the damn thing,” but I wasn’t going to stop now. So, I rambled on.
“When I understand the nature of the sharpener my perception of it changes. I no longer have a run-down relic that has seen better days, but a wondrous instrument of technology that is gradually sharpening my pencil.”
I held it up again. He was openly laughing at this point, but whether he was laughing at me or near me, I really couldn’t tell.
I said, “This is a metaphor for life. When I understand life for what it is, life is not good or bad, it just is. When I look at life this way, my mind becomes less crowded, and I am less frustrated and angered by simple tasks.”
At this remark I looked over and saw him still laughing clearly enjoying the conversation.
“As a result of this attitude, not only do I have a good life, but it becomes sweet, and serene. Not bitter and remorseful. A perfect point, if you will.” I stopped sharpening the pencil and held it up to see that the pencil was indeed sharpened to a perfect point.
He smiled somewhat mockingly and said, “Thanks for the lesson, Newson.”
I replied with my characteristic “No! No! Thank you!” and watched him return to his seat. As he walked away it occurred to me that he’s probably the last person who needed to hear that.
Chris died last Thursday in an automobile accident. A car in the oncoming lane mysteriously jumped the median and slammed into his car at about 70 miles an hour. How the Taoist Pencil Sharpener is going to help me here I don’t know, but this I do know. Life is sweet.
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