Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Being Around Bad Pots

33. Being Around Bad Pots

In some ways the person who put up with me the most in graduate school was Keith Williams, a fellow student who started one semester before me, graduated at the same time that I did, and occupied the neighboring studio space for the entire three years of our program. He had been a public school art teacher before coming to Iowa and he was the most focused of us all in his postgraduate ambitions. It was his plan to be a college ceramics teacher, and I’m happy to be able to report that he succeeded admirably.
As I mentioned, he had taught before and had some idea of what he was getting himself into, but that did not keep him from the occasional profound revelation in the course of our education. One day, the two of us happened to be in the kiln room on some chore that took us both near the ware carts with their heavily laden shelves of lumpy greenware. Looking at all those Ceramics I and II pots he let loose a deep and pitiable sigh. I asked, “What’s wrong?”
He replied, “It just occurred to me that I’m going to spend the rest of my career around a lot of bad pots.”
We’re not talking about ‘bad’ as ‘naughty,’ here. This is ‘bad’ as in misshapen, lumpy, disproportionate, inept. We’re talking about all the entirely predictable failures of wave after wave of indifferent undergraduates, struggling to acquire the physical and judgmental skills necessary to make any kind of object worth owning.
I nodded my sympathy and agreement.
My own undergraduate ceramics teacher, Merle Zirkle, once told me that she needed just one good student every two years to emotionally sustain her as a teacher. More was better, of course, and she had something of a flurry in the early 80’s. But there had been droughts, too, and they were both dangerous and debilitating for the spirit of a teacher.
It’s hard to be unerringly encouraging around ugly objects and unpromising students. And yet you must be. That is the role you’ve chosen and trained for. It’s not a role that’s destined to bring you much glory and if teaching is where your current ambitions lie perhaps you should re-evaluate the potential consequences of your success.
How deep are your wellsprings of cheerfulness? How gentle are you in the face of obstinate incompetence? How many ways can you explain a thing for those students who have trouble with the first two approaches you’ve used? How will you cope with the loneliness of being the only competent ceramicist in the studio (or perhaps, the entire town)?
What will sustain you in the presence of all those bad pots?

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