It’s early in a new semester, and my Ceramics I students are beginning to throw on the potter’s wheel. Fumbling hands dry out with friction, bodies rock back and forth with the pressure of two pounds of spinning clay. In the first couple of days, a student or two manages to center with beginner’s luck, only to find himself lost again as his muscles and mind try to remember how it all worked. I work my way around the room, coaching one-on-one, reminding the others that I have eyes in the back of my head.
Slowly – but so much faster than I did, when I started this journey – they begin to catch on. I have noticed my students seldom celebrate or cheer when they figure out centering. Instead, it’s almost as if their spirits quiet with their hands. When the challenge is new and they are just at the brink of catching on, you sometimes can hear a pin drop onto all the focused intensity in the room.
In the midst of my students’ learning, my own plate of responsibilities has been full. Gradebooks, extracurriculars, students to advise, publications to design, applications to complete. The studios always seem busy, too, full of students working for arts classes, projects in other classes, or themselves. Changes – proposed or enacted – abound in our school community, and there is tension in every conversation as we try to keep up. The backdrop to all of it is the longest and hardest winter we’ve had in years. Routines have been sparse in the midst of disruption – delays or cancellations, skids on the ice or flat tires, more new initiatives or concerns about them.
The phrase “never a dull moment” is cliche, but accurate. I worry that my students haven’t found their rhythm in the studio. One experienced student potter observed that he has felt off center lately – so he hasn’t been able to center his clay. We sat at wheels together one afternoon and tried to work through it. The only resolution was empathy.
One evening this week, I stayed at school until late evening to watch the final dress rehearsal for the musical. Every day after school for the last several months, our building has filled with the chatter and laughter of students from three schools who are participating in a full-throttle, professionally staged musical. A number of my regular potters and newspaper editors are participating in a show for the first time ever. It’s all they have been talking about – the long hours, the camaraderie, the awkwardness of trying to sing and dance on stage.
I watched Brian, Joe, Dan, Brendan, Tom, and the others focused their way through the musical numbers. Brows were furrowed with concentration – yet the dances and songs were so polished, it was hard to believe that this was their first performance on stage. Brendan danced a short ballet. Brian took a big role in a comedic scene. A few of them even had lines. You could see it on their faces – or maybe I could read it through the lines of our conversations – that this new work was hard, and still felt a little unnatural. And yet there they were, singing and dancing in front of an empty theatre that would soon be sold out, hearts all in to their new work. It was an enormous credit to the show’s director and production staff that the performance seemed so polished. It was an enormous credit to these theatre newcomers that they had embraced such an unfamiliar world, and pushed themselves so hard. I was very proud. I was a little envious.
Driving home that night, my mind wandered back through times of newness in my own life. I thought about my first adventures riding horses as a child, when every tumble made me more determined to climb back on and try again. I recalled a new relationship, when everything about my partner was an exciting puzzle to figure out. Throwing pottery was new once, and those first few weeks before I figured out centering were nothing if not consuming. Oh, to live in the excitement of a new job, when I’ve bought into the mission and have so many processes and working relationships to figure out. Just recently, I’ve taken a few classes in audio production, and the newness of the techniques, stories, and software gave me a few blissfully sleepless nights.
I tried to recall if I had felt busy or preoccupied with other things during these new challenges. I’m sure I was busy – but the feelings of being unbalanced or overcommitted have faded if ever there.. What I remember is the flow of pushing myself in a new direction.
“Complexity requires investing psychic energy in goals that are new, that are relatively challenging. It is easy to see this process in children: During the first few years of life every child is a little “learning machine” trying out new movements, new words daily. The rapt concentration on the child’s face as she learns each new skill is a good indication of what enjoyment is about. And each instance of enjoyable learning adds to the complexity of the child’s developing self.
Unfortunately, this natural connection between growth and enjoyment tends to disappear with time. Perhaps because ‘learning’ becomes an external imposition when schooling starts, the excitement of mastering new skills gradually wears out.”
How do we design our work so that it meets external demands, but remains complex and intrinsically engaging? I’m better at helping students get to this place than I am at finding it myself.
A few ideas. It’s about the task being challenging. There is something about how my beginning ceramics students internalize the challenge of centering that removes this process from the busy, frenetic pace of the school day. It’s about some structure – maybe just enough. My advanced students are working more independently this year than ever before, with critiques every two weeks and self-determined projects. Although the year’s disruptions have been challenging, they are making better work than I’ve ever seen. And it’s about choice. I doubt that all the new actors would be nearly as engaged in the theatre if it was an ‘external imposition.’ They made and committed to the choice to learn stagecraft, and so its challenges are complex and enjoyable.
New is exciting, but things can’t be ‘new’ all the time. If I was throwing a new challenge at my intro students every day, they would be overwhelmed and missing the opportunity for any depth in practice. I’m pushing those advanced students to stick with a project for two weeks – even when it gets challenging or they get sparked in another direction. The actors had to drill and practice, and I heard that it was especially challenging to stick with the choreography. ‘New’ also doesn’t mean magical thinking, or suggest that we just throw things at the wall to see what sticks. You have to show up, and you have to stay with the activity, even when it’s hard and feels like work.
“One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.”
Too much new, stress and shallow learning. Too little new, boredom and disengagement. The balance between seeking the challenges of new work and getting weighed down with external responsibilities is one heck of a tightrope. Especially in winters like this one.
Seeing my students on stage was a reminder that new challenges are worth seeking – even when the obstacles seem big, even when you need the 48-hour days. Bravo, Sharks and Jets!