Endings and Beginnings

The ending of a school year is never easy. I’ve often thought that school should be a year-round job, with the consistency of daily rhythms and relationships throughout the calendar year. Summer means severing ties, saying goodbyes and see-you-laters, and knowing that lots of things are going to be different when you return to work in a few months. Even though my life basically has been a nonstop stream of transitions over the last decade or so, I’ve never been very good at the mixed reality of the academic year.

A logistical complication at my current gig is that my classes are all mixed grade levels, and the seniors ‘finish’ more than two weeks before the underclassmen. A sophomore asked me point-blank the other day, “How do you justify the seniors finishing their classes so much earlier? Isn’t there stuff you still need to teach them in order to finish the class?” His friend chimed in, “Yeah, does that mean this stuff we are doing at the end of the year isn’t important?”

He knew the answer to that question before I shot him a short-lived and unnecessary glare. Fortunately, I’ve developed some pretty engaging end-of-the-year projects, and my underclassmen students really seem to be into the work. But both students’ questions are realistic ones that have given me thought and pause.

I have this cursed way of looking at the world called idealism. As they finish the last year of high school, I want to believe that my seniors have developed habits of lifelong learning. But what we do to celebrate and reinforce this habit? We tell them to be done early, to stop showing up. Of course, a handful of them jump into internships or start their summer jobs. But too often, it seems like they are embracing the reward we offer them. “Stop learning,” we insinuate. “It’s a prize that you’ve earned, one that distinguishes you from your peers, and an honor that we celebrate.”

This year, I tried an experiment with my ceramics seniors. All of them have been in my classes for at least the equivalent of a full academic year. Many of them came to ceramics via service involvement through Empty Bowls. And for the first time in a few years, none of them are headed off to any version of art school. With the awareness that these last days in the studio may be their last art-making experience for awhile, I was thinking about what I want them to take away from the experience of being ceramic artists throughout high school.

I came up with two outcomes. For one thing, I wanted to reinforce the big lesson behind Empty Bowls – that if you develop a talent, whatever it might be, you have the responsibility to use that talent in the service of others. For another thing, I wanted to challenge them to think about what it might take to continue with this clay habit that they’ve developed through exposure and time. What would it mean to seek out studio time, to form their own habits of making – rather than time that was scheduled for them each day?

So, I delivered the prompt on Monday, when the last day of classes for them was Thursday and senior grades were not due for another week-and-a-half. Ceramics 2 – 10 greenware or bisqued for next year’s Empty Bowls; Ceramics 3 – 15; Ceramics 4 – 20. All bowls should be ‘soupworthy,’ demonstrate great craftsmanship, and be presented for critique at a time the students would independently arrange with me.

I expected groans. I got none. Instead, I watched as my seniors scheduled their own time to work in the studio. Dressed in shorts and summer t-shirts, they worked during my other classes, first thing in the morning, and after school. A few alumni worked alongside them, coming straight home to the studio after freshman or sophomore year. They were curious about each other – “Hey, Ms. P., who else has been working? Who else is done?” I was deliberately obtuse, because the social aspects of their clay-habits no longer mattered. By fall, they will be headed in opposite directions and forming new support networks. Instead, I directed them to look at the cart of bowls in the hallway, which was soon overflowing.

Our independent reviews were an opportunity for me to have a conversation with each student about his experience in making, and to get an informal review of the project. At the end of 10, 15, or 20 bowls – one student made 25 – I still got no complaints, and more than a few thank-yous. They got it, and they got why I’d asked them to do it.  Not every senior completed the project, and the incompletes were disappointing.  But the success rate was higher than I’d hoped.

“I can’t wait to come back to Empty Bowls next year and find the bowls that I signed,” said one senior. “Make sure they get glazed by someone who knows what they are doing!” Another young man decided to find alum connections at his college who could point him in the direction of the clay studio, and identified a college sophomore who, unbeknownst to me, had declared a minor in ceramics.

“Will you do this next year, when I’m in Ceramics 4?” asked one junior, examining the piles of bowls on the cart. “Should I?” I responded, and he nodded vigorously.

“I think I’m going to want the excuse to keep working at the end of the year, to keep showing up.”

Me too.



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