Hard Work and Heartache

The pace has been two or three kiln firings each day this week, the last week before winter break and less than a week before student work goes on display for the twice-yearly art show.

One kiln quit reaching bisque temperature mid-week. When I reached inside to remove work that had only gotten to about a thousand degrees, I accidentally smashed a teapot that one student had spent nearly three weeks constructing. Time for a service call, I thought, as I rested my head in my hands and sadly looked at the brittle shards.

The finished work by my intro level students is clumsy. Glazing takes just as much practice as throwing and trimming, and yet I always seem to end up timing the finishing steps too near the end of the term. My students neglect to completely stir the glazes. They double-dip, even though I have them chant and repeat after me, “no double dipping.” They miss rims, leave insides unglazed, splatter wax and wonder why glaze won’t stick to the walls. When I look at their shelves, I shake my head at the small, awkward pots.  “I can do better,” I think, reflecting on how I can time and teach the course differently next round.

And then one student asks if he can go fill his fired mug at the water fountain, to drink from it for the first time. He comes back proudly sipping from his little blue cup, and others follow his lead.  I remember my first awkward cup, a long time ago, and I think I was proud of it, too. They critique handles and volume, and discuss what they will do differently next time they make something. I smile sadly at this small miracle, knowing that less than two weeks remain in the course.

My upper-level students understand glazing a little better. They know how to apply wax and underglaze, though they sometimes get the processes in the wrong order. They jostle each other about double-dipping, turning the admonition into a joke with innuendo. They take notes on their glazing without me reminding them to do so. But even with the experience, each kiln opening brings heartache as well as joy. A complex piece tips on a stilt, knocking into two other beautiful cups and sealing all three pieces together. A teapot lid sticks on with glaze – until I try to grind some runoff from the bottom, when it promptly falls off and shatters. The yin yang teapots fire beautifully in the creator’s perspective; I wish that the dots had not run. Unexpectedly, a student’s risky sculptural project that had given all of us doubts fires so beautifully that it elicits gasps.

The weeks have lasted seven days for me, the workaholic who hosts Open Studios on Saturdays, and who sneaks in on Sunday afternoons to unload and reload. I am tired. Hard work has been my strategy all along, from the day I first touched clay during my senior year of college. I’m probably better at teaching this work ethic than I am at teaching ceramics. It’s never a surprise when my most hardworking students end up with beautiful results from the kiln. What is surprising, and sometimes hard to process, is when heartache happens for these stars, through no fault of their own.

As I unloaded shelves today, I thought about several emails I received last night. Three of my strongest – and admittedly favorite – upper-level students heard back from their first-choice colleges. For one, the news was exactly what he had been hoping for.  For another, it was the equivalent of, “later, maybe.”  And when I read the word “rejected” in the other note, my heart sank.

A good kiln day

I thought about the analogy to glazing. All of these students had practiced their technique, taken careful notes, followed every rule, and made some beautiful work-in-progress. But, like the final glaze firing, there are aspects of the college admissions process that are simply left to chance, or to the whim of the kiln or admissions office goings-on.

I am more of an expert on glazing now than I am on college admissions.  (Admittedly, I’m not so expert in either.) The former has not changed much since my first college ceramics class, while the latter is a whole new world of subtle differences between ‘early action’ and ‘early decision.’  But try a web search on ‘fairness of college admissions,’ and widely-reported doubts will raise anyone’s eyebrows. I sadly think that intro-level glazing seems to get more predictable results.

What gives me hope is the work ethic I’ve seen in these young men – and in so many students who learn to be craftsmen. The habits of work ethic they have built in persisting through process and failure will serve them well in whatever challenges their futures hold. Our communal optimism – looking for the bright side of unexpected results – helps us to consider that surprising outcomes can still be beautiful. The trust they place in me to handle the firings, and the honesty of apologies and explanations when things go wrong, carries lessons about how to depend on and support others. And occasionally unpredictable results, even when everything has been done right, contribute to these students’ resilience.

I know that my so-called “rejected” student will be fine – more than fine, successful – at the college where he ends up studying, and in whatever career path he chooses. But clay also teaches us empathy and hope, and today he is disappointed. So I take a break from the afternoon’s work to write a thoughtful response on how sorry I am and how proud I remain. And as I load his final work into the kiln, I spend a moment on my silly good karma ritual, blowing luck onto the piece and saying a little prayer as I cover it with the next shelf. “It can’t hurt,” I say out loud to myself as I close the kiln door.

No matter how hard we work, no matter how much time and carefulness we spend, luck always seems to part of the story.

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