This weekend, I took a pot for a hike, prefaced by three surprises.
The third surprise was how well this small vase fit my hand. That should not have been a surprise, really, but it was, this fleeting little gasp of a smile as I lifted it from the box. I will find out, eventually, if this fit was intentional or an accident. But its glove-grip around my hand was just about perfect, and the genesis of the idea to take the pot into the woods.
The second surprise was receiving the box, then later unwrapping it to find the pot itself. I was forbidden to open it while I was sitting across the table from the gifter, so the box rested on the seat of my car while I drove deeper into the woods. I glanced at it once in awhile as I wound tight turns in the Laurel Highlands. Wrapped tightly and silent, it was its own metaphor. “Sometimes the anticipation is better than the thing itself,” my friend Stacie had noted the night before, over dinner out and a conversation in which I probably said too much. I’m sure she is right, though I mostly wouldn’t know. But once I got to the motel and opened this box, the pot inside became an even better metaphor, one that far outweighed the anticipation.
Which brings me to the first surprise, which wasn’t really a surprise at all. In the profession of teaching, we never know the impact that we have. Results are anything but immediate – at least not in teaching a subject in which trust and time are essential ingredients to the process, the product, and the person. Yesterday I sat across a tavern table from Stuart Thompson, the first person who taught me anything about clay. The non-surprise was he didn’t remember a thing about two choices he made as a teacher that changed the trajectory of my life.
Stu (it took some effort for me to call him that, and not Dr. Thompson) is retired now, a veteran of the Navy, high school teaching, college teaching, most of the Appalachian Trail, and an ongoing life story that has made him wiser than just about anyone I’ve ever known.
It is striking how much his self-effacing manner and his many questions about our world magnify that wisdom. I never noticed this when I took his class as his a clumsy college senior. He seemed wise then, too, but for opposite reasons of vast knowledge and a commanding presence in the studio. I remember him as the teacher who terrified me. It wasn’t just him, though – clay terrified me, which was why I left the required class until my senior year of college. I knew Dr. Thompson by reputation for toughness, with high expectations for process and product. I knew clay by its foreignness to my self-imposed box of making drawings, and its reputation of being coordination-based. Also, I suppose I was a lot like my current students in that I was reluctant to take on any class that would bring down my GPA – and I was convinced that it would.
Dr. Thompson’s first remarkable choice happened about three weeks into the semester. He’d introduced our class to the wheel, and after a few clumsy missteps, most of the students were making simple pots. I don’t recall our first wheel assignment – probably because I didn’t do it. I was still fumbling through centering, and I just couldn’t get it. In hindsight, I know why I struggled – I’ve seen other analytical, rigid students struggle in the same way. If the clay looked like it was wobbling to the left, I tried to push it to the right. That doesn’t work, but what context does a straight-A academic student have for learning by feel? It’s far more logical to correct an apparent problem by force-fixing it, rather than trusting oneself – or someone else.
One afternoon, after watching me struggle, he blindfolded me. I centered immediately. It was one of the most poetic and impactful moments I’ve ever experienced as a learner. All I needed to do was to let go and to trust myself. He didn’t tell me this; he showed me, with the blindfold. To this day, I still either close my eyes or make eye contact with my students when I center – not because I have to do so, but because the gesture connects me to something human. After I tell my students this story, they sometimes try it.
His second choice had to do with time. Not long after I was finally able to throw a heavy but otherwise okay cylinder, I twisted and fractured my ankle over Thanksgiving break. A few steel pins, a lot of painkillers, and a set of crutches on which I was clumsier than I was on the potters’ wheel made it impossible for me to get back to the studio. I was still fairly terrified of Stu when I had to ask him about an incomplete. His answer was to give me the entire spring semester to finish my work. And so, during the second semester of my senior year, when I perhaps should have been figuring out plans for post-school and how to wrap up the loose ends of college relationships, I basically moved into the clay studio. I was able to work unsupervised, at my own pace, with minimal deadlines and structure.
Clay worked its way into my blood in spring 1998. Stu’s choice – and it was a choice, as he didn’t have to give me such flexibility – taught me that time is more important than just about anything else when it comes to art, process, product, and becoming a whole person. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t make any work of substance as an undergrad, and I’m not sure I even do so now. But I’m convinced that this gift of time directly resulted in me continuing to make and teach ceramics fifteen years later.
As I noted, Stu doesn’t remember either one of these choices. And I suppose that as I teach, there’s a lot I won’t remember, either. We teachers can’t predict the impactful moments or the meaningful choices – we just have to do the best we can, each day, leave room for the clumsy and unpredictable stuff, and hope that some of the good sticks.
I’m at a crossroads in my career. Reconnecting with Stu Thompson was a crazily well-timed revisit to a similar crossroads more than fifteen years ago, when he gently guided me to trust myself, slow down, and take time. Those weren’t clay-specific lessons. Neither were any of the wise, honest observations he or his wife Nora offered at our lunch, considerations which are now mine to process and perhaps act upon. Stu may be humble and self-effacing, but his wisdom continues to be priceless to me – and doubtless to many of the other students whom he has impacted over the years.
The physical gift, too, became less clay-specific as I carried it into the woods, and more a metaphor for how lucky I’ve been to learn from some truly great teachers. Like this pot, their lessons fit like a glove, adapt into any environment, and will outlast and carry me through the worry of what is immediate. There is something I need to remember about passion for teaching in the very existence of these lessons – and this pot – in the world.
My luck at all of this is fortunate. My gratitude is an understatement.