On background and gratitude

It is May.  The seniors are finished with regular classes, but still wander in and out of the studio. The art show is finished and slowly disassembling itself.  I’m somewhere between a sigh of relief and the anxiety of what’s next.

For the last week or so, a student who graduated last year has been parked at a potters’ wheel in the studio.  He arrives during first period, and is often still there at the end of the day.  He’s a bright young man with a world of options open to him, but he’s attending a college that does not have an arts major.  Like so many of the students I teach, he is headed towards something in business, and I have no doubt that he will excel in whatever his direction.

I commented that it was great to see him making so many new pots.  “If I could do anything in life, I think I’d spend my whole days doing this,” he said.  “I just love it.”

Of course, he could do ‘this.’  Some students do.  Kevin and Corey are graduating from art schools this year.  Ryan keeps me posted on his latest creations in the college ceramics studio via his Instagram account.  Shannon is living the artist’s life, sharing studio space and applying to grad school.  But I understand the risk and the perceived impracticality of a decision to pursue a degree in the arts – especially in an economy so unsteady.

So I smile, and nod, and mumble something about how much I hope ceramics plays some role in his future.  I truly do.  I have a feeling that it will.

I wonder if my own path was simpler, or if I just wasn’t bothered by those questions of career or practicality.

My mom – first generation to college – majored in math.  She was good at it, she tells me.  Her summers during college were spent working at the graphite plant where her father worked, and where I spent a couple of summers, too, awkwardly trying to play some sort of role in an office.  They hired her after graduation.  She worked in IT, back when computers took entire basements to spit out paper punchcards that documented some sort of production.  It was always long hours with no overtime, with practical demands of input, output, production, and industry.

It still is.

For awhile, before he retired, my grandfather still worked out in the plant.  He was proud of her, I think. Sitting around my grandparents’ kitchen table, they would talk shop, while I drew pictures on whatever scrap paper I could find or curled up on the couch with a book.

Drawing pictures turned into something more serious along the way.  The first evidence was when I was accepted into a full-scholarship summer arts program that threw me into the middle of every open possibility for five weeks.  No one – not my teacher, not my parents, not me – thought I’d get in; then, I’m pretty sure that no one thought I’d actually last for five weeks.  It was transformative.  I came home proclaiming that I wanted to be an art therapist.  Or a greeting card designer.  Or an art teacher, maybe, but that didn’t seem quite so appealing.

As I watch my current seniors plan and prepare for college, carefully aligning their interests with majors and future starting salaries, I can’t decide whether I am grateful or furious with my practically-minded mom.  To my memory, she never questioned anything about my lofty dreams.  I don’t think she ever met with my guidance counselor – or maybe she did, and the conversation infuriated her as much as it did me, so we never discussed it.  I’ve always wondered how she explained to her industrial circles that her daughter was going to school to study art.  Did she flinch at the raised eyebrows?  Did she second-guess, or ever want to counsel me out of it?  If so, I never knew.

I picked a college that was probably a little too safe, in hindsight.  But it was a place where I could be a bigger fish and build my confidence, while she cheered me on, sent care packages, and sheltered me from the reality of my growing student loans.  I wish that she would have asked me more questions.  Maybe she could have pushed – how exactly are you going to apply that painting class to a life beyond undergrad?  Why do you need money to buy black velvet and sequins?  Or nudged me to stop writing poems and making prints about that boy who played the piano and preoccupied my time.  (Also, did I notice that he was a word that my mother would never say?)

Beautiful lady.

Beautiful lady.

Then again – I am grateful, so grateful, that she supported me unconditionally.  I imagine that it must have been hard – watching all the mistakes of this dreamy, imaginative, stubborn but unfocused girl who was clearly not going to fit in very well to the family business.  But by allowing me to figure out my own path, my mom also let me take ownership of my decisions, for better or for worse.

I inherited her work ethic and her stubbornness, but everything else came from somewhere else, maybe the same source that inspired my sister to study and pursue music.  Our journeys have been the opposite of practical, and the opposite of hers, but truly our own.

“If I could do anything in life, I think I’d spend my whole days doing this,” she said.  Despite the anxiety, despite the frustration, despite the worry and the questions. “I just love it.”

Thanks, Mom.

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