Beyond What is Necessary

Holidays challenge me.

In my role as a teacher, one of the hardest parts of a holiday is accepting gifts from my students. Post-Santa, I was raised to understand that celebratory gifts are, conceptually, an exchange – you give a gift, you get a gift, with some attempted equivalency of value. That attempt is the source of much holiday stress, but that’s just how the gingerbread house crumbles. When you work with a hundred or so students on a teacher’s budget, any attempt at a gift exchange is completely infeasible. So when students hand me gift bags in late December – or when I find them on my desk – I’m always a little embarrassed.

Teaching is a job, but teaching also involves building relationships with students. In many cases, these relationships are substantial. They are not friendships, but they are based in the same sorts of things that define friendships: trust, exchange of ideas, laughter, shared experience, discoveries, frustrations, joy. I wish that I could give my students gifts that matter – something meaningful or challenging, something that would extend moments we have shared in a semester. I exchange gifts with my friends. I do my best to offer time and support to my students – and it challenges me when they give me gifts in return.

I smile. I mumble thanks. I stagger some emails or thank-you notes during the break. I tuck the gifts, cards, and gift cards underneath the small tree in my apartment. I overthink and dwell on the problematic unequal exchange while I’m loading holiday kilns.

After school on the last day before break, I sent a thank-you email to a remarkable current student. “Totally unnecessary,” I wrote about his gift, “but much appreciated.”

His response came quickly. “If we only did what was necessary,” he wrote, “then everything would be horrible.”

I read this line over and over again. I repeated it once or twice to a studio full of students and alumni who came in to help with a Saturday open studio the next day. I thought about it while I listened long-distance to a friend who is struggling, saying what words I could to comfort. I mumbled it out loud to myself as I stacked more bowls in the gallery. Our Empty Bowls is less than a month away, and I would trade my favorite trim tools for an extra few weeks to get ready. And I am writing it here several days later. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving. His brief insight was one of the best presents I’ll receive this year.

Totally unnecessary Saturday bowls...

Totally unnecessary Saturday bowls…

What is “necessary”? Certainly not the Christmas gifts. But my student’s remark reminded me about something that is easy to forget in the crazy pace of the work week or the frantic holiday rush.

He reminded me about my ideals.

When I think about the times throughout life when I have been truly happy, nearly all of them involve going beyond what seems “necessary.” Too often, the system defines what is required – and whether due to exhaustion, perceived helplessness, or normative behavior, that is all the further I go. Grades are due on Tuesday; I get them done. Bills are due on the first of the month; I pay as many of them as I can. A friend shares something challenging; I ‘like’ his Facebook post. My curriculum notes that students should finish my classes with a certain set of knowledge and skills; I see to it that they do so, to the best of my ability.

But the moments when I’m happiest seem to come when I have gone past what is ‘due’ to what I can do well – to the work that I care deeply about, and that I know makes a difference. At work I am happiest when I take the extra time to work with a student who has been struggling with centering or lifting a wall. The extra time was not ‘necessary.’ He would eventually figure it out from the instruction and from struggling through the process; they all do, in the end. But by sitting with him and helping to position his hands, I help the ‘aha’ moment of throwing a pot to come a lot sooner. I am happiest when I’m across from a thoughtful senior, spending a lunch period reviewing a newspaper story or an admissions essay. My input is not ‘necessary’ – but I hope that clarification of ideas and consideration of structure is helpful. More often over the years, I’ve been brave enough to flip the table and ask a student to review something I have written, created, or taught. Not ‘necessary,’ either – but the valuable and honest feedback flows two ways in conversations that are based in mutual respect.

I am happiest when I am sitting at a table on a Friday night alongside my students and some men who are rebuilding their lives with a shelter as a home base. We swap stories and paint bowls, all of it very unnecessary. I am happiest when I am at work with volunteer students on a Saturday afternoon, creating bowls collaboratively so we can share something meaningful from the abundance of talent and opportunity that fills the room. None of it is ‘necesssary.’ Or is it?

In ‘A Path Appears‘ by Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wu-Dunn, one of my favorite books of this year, the authors investigate the neuroscience of generosity. They cite a number of studies that point to positive impacts on personal happiness and health when people go past what is necessary, into what can be construed as charitable and generous. One study noted that giving and generosity in high school predicted good mental and physical health half a century later. According to the authors’ research, altruists seem more likely to age gracefully, maintain their health, and live longer lives.

In another memorable book I read this year, William Deresiewicz writes:

“Aristotle, who said that man is a social animal, also said that happiness derives from exercising one’s particular capacities. Doing strenuously, in other words, what you do well. Summoning that sense of joy and freedom that arises from your belly when you’re doing work that calls upon your favorite powers.”

I am lucky to teach at a school that has a strong foundation in service and plenty of support for initiative in altruistic directions. But even in such a supportive environment, it is a stretch from doing what is necessary – required service programs – to initiative, self-determination, and ‘doing strenuously.’ And the challenge is not just about service work.

Deresiewicz noted, “The problem is that students have been taught that that is all that education is: doing your homework, getting the answers, acing the test. Nothing in their training has endowed them with the sense that something larger is at stake. They’ve learned to ‘be a student,’ not to use their minds.” I don’t think the picture is quite as bleak as Deresiewicz sometimes paints it. Maybe my perspective comes from teaching a subject matter that is sometimes argued as unnecessary, and seeing too many students develop passion and excellence in the studio. But his observations struck a chord. Too often, norms suggest that we simply finish the job. Concern self with self. Finish and move on. Where does going beyond fit in?

What are our ‘favorite powers?’ How often do we exercise them past what is necessary? And – maybe most importantly – as teachers, how much do we share the importance of this push past what simply what is due?

Put the Christmas presents aside. Name ‘particular capacities’ as our gifts – our talents, strengths, passions, the fires in our guts that get us moving – and it is time to begin a new year that is full to capacity of giving and receiving gifts. As for me, I need to find what has gotten lost in my translation. I used to do a lot better job of going beyond what was necessary, every single day, and convincing others around me that ‘doing strenuously’ matters. Just like the awkward way I respond to presents, I’ve been fumbling around a bit on how I share and role model my ideals.

Something larger is at stake. If there is only room for what is necessary, everything will be horrible – because that does not leave much room for happiness, either.

After winter break began, an alum stopped in to pick up a piece I had fired for him in one of those holiday kilns. He brought a gift that was amazing for its perfect timing. I opened his tupperware container to find exactly four freshly-baked and neatly-packaged Christmas cookies. We laughed, admiring his finished piece and comparing baking the cookies to firing the kilns. Neither of us had done ‘necessary’ work – but in that moment, our gift exchange was just about perfect.

He advised that I should eat the two lemon creme ones before I finished re-loading, because they really should get refrigerated otherwise. I wasn’t embarrassed about this gift. I thanked him profusely with a handshake and a hug, and I ate all four cookies between loading shelves.

Totally unnecessary, and absolutely delicious.

Happy holidays.

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