The Fence-Building Project

The Wheeler family purchased a property of several acres, but the land hadn’t been put to much use by previous owners. After they moved in, the first thing Mr. Wheeler set about to do was build some wooden fencing to enclose the backyard. A fence would separate the family’s recreational activities from other functions the property would serve. The project would make a good learning opportunity for his teenage son, Erik.

He drew a diagram on a sheet of paper and reviewed the process with Erik to give him a vision of the end product. Then they began the first step.

Mr. Wheeler explained and demonstrated the process as he measured out the distances and ran lengths of twine where the fence would stand so it would be built in straight lines. Then he showed Erik how to use a post-hole digger and line up the holes along the twine. Erik worked up one side of the yard making holes, while Mr. Wheeler did so on the other side.

Erik quickly grew tired. His arms ached—it felt like smashing the digger into solid rock. He wiped sweat from his temples and looked across the backyard. His dad whistled as he thrust the digger into the ground and removed a big clod of dirt. Erik realized Dad was already two holes ahead. He exhaled hard and went back to work.

At one point, he walked over and looked at Dad’s holes. They were perfectly round, and Erik realized they were also a little deeper than his own—he would have to go back and dig more out of each hole.

“Everything going all right?” Dad asked.

“Sure,” Erik said, but Dad followed him back to his side of the yard anyway. Not wanting to look foolish, Erik pointed out what he needed to do to fix the holes he’d already dug.

“Yep,” was all his father said.

That took the rest of the day. Mr. Wheeler had to check on Erik’s work a few more times. Each time, he pointed out some needed improvements. Once, he had to tell Erik something that he had mentioned just the previous time, but he did so without so much as a hint of irritation. They got it done, though Erik’s dad did two sides of the yard to Erik’s one.

The next day, it was time to set the posts. Once again, Mr. Wheeler explained how to mix the concrete and set each post in the hole and use a level so it would be plumb. He progressed faster than Erik, of course. Erik just couldn’t get the first post to stand up straight. When he really thought he had it, the concrete set, and his dad came over and checked it with the level. The bubble bobbed to one side.

“I just wasted a post!” Erik exclaimed and called himself something derogatory.

“I have an extra,” Dad replied. “And don’t call yourself that.”

There was nothing for it but to dig out the concrete and do it over. Dad helped him get the lump of concrete out of the ground and adjust the size of the hole. Erik mixed the concrete and set the post under his father’s steady eye. “That’s it,” he finally said, then clapped Erik on the back and walked away. Erik felt a little swell of pride.

Then he looked up the line of holes awaiting him, and his shoulders slumped a little.

He had to dig out only one more post after the concrete had set. His dad had “an extra,” and Erik wondered how many extras there were. Fortunately, he didn’t need any more. Yet again, Dad finished both his side and the back. Erik worried that a lot of the fence would look perfect, but everyone would know that the cruddy part was his fault.

But the next day, he found himself in need of plenty of extra nails.

Mr. Wheeler demonstrated how to place the rails and nail the fence boards to them. Erik struggled to get the nails in the right places—he kept driving them in at the wrong angle, or splitting the end of the board, or hitting a knot and bending the nail.

His portion of the fence looked horrible. It was time to just give up. He growled aloud and moaned, “Dad!”

His dad ambled over. “What’s wrong, son?”

“Just look! I can’t get this right! Any of it!”

Mr. Wheeler scanned the section of fence that Erik was working on—still the first section on this side, of course. “Not the worst I’ve seen,” was all he said, but Erik thought he saw the flicker of a smile. It was so fast that he couldn’t be sure. “Look at what you’ve done so far. You’ve gotten some of it right.”

For the next ten minutes, Mr. Wheeler went over the steps again. Erik nodded.

“Why are you so calm about all of this?” he asked. “Why aren’t you mad that I keep messing up?”

“If I get angry, will that help you do better with the fence?”

Erik blinked, then shook his head.

“Just remember what I’ve shown you, and get a bit better at putting it into practice, and that will be good enough.” He gestured. “Don’t worry about all those sections in front of you. We’ll get to those. All you need to do is get a little better at this right here.” Dad smiled, turned, and went back to his side of the yard.

With a smile and a lighter heart, Erik went back to work.

Photo by James Frid on

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