Glaze Mixing and 4th Grade

keep your sense of humorI mixed a fresh recipe of one of my glazes last weekend. The process was so smooth that it actually sort of made me nervous. Granted, I did stop right in the beginning for an emergency trip for food. I have been known to begin to mix glazes at about 4.5 hours since my last meal. Low blood sugar is a problem for glaze mixing for me. It looks a little bit like a vibrating crazy person with wild cow-friend eyes (see last week’s post) wearing a respirator and a giant green apron. Ask my sisters. None of us should undertake anything of importance if it’s been longer than 3 hours since eating.

The last time I mixed glazes, I wanted to throw things. And not pottery, either. And I wanted to eat a burrito, which I should have done first, but didn’t.

The soviet era grocery store scale wouldn’t zero properly. And every time I touched the power, it began a new and fresh hour of “thinking” before I could get it to even consider zeroing. Zeroing is important for those wild cow-friend eyed glaze mixers because without being able to subtract the weight of the bucket from the scale (thus setting it back to zero) I have to recalculate the weight of each powdered raw material that I need so that the entire recipe isn’t off. Not a huge deal if you’ve eaten lately and don’t mind long, dark talks with yourself on addition and subtraction as you pace the (12×12) glaze kitchen. It’s important to be as accurate as you can–glaze recipes are calculated to the gram. This last time, what could have been a 90 minute process morphed into a three hour tour of placing the scale on the floor, then back on the counter, then back on the floor. I don’t know why it worked, but it did.

As I performed the glaze mixing-scale lifting dance, I thought of my 4th grade teacher, Ms. H. On rainy days when we all had too much pent up energy, Ms. H. would turn on a record player (yes a record player) and we’d all do some variation of Head, Shoulders Knees and Toes for 30 minutes to try to shake some of that energy out. That’s pretty much what the scale-lifting event at this personal glaze mixing competition looked like. Head, shoulders, counter, floor, counter, floor. And eyes and ears and mouth and nose….

All_20130106184610_1Even in 4th grade, I knew we looked terribly silly and Ms. H looked silliest of all with her floral pants and eyebrows given temporary respite from their deep furrow. So enthusiastic! Smiling, joyful, even. So 4th grade me laughed and laughed while head-shoulders-knees-and-toes-ing. It seemed like she laughed along.

Ms. H. was unimpressed with my math skills and seemed to relish hollering math “tips” to me up at her desk at the front of the room, asking rhetorical questions like, “why don’t you understand? Why can’t you get this?” at increasingly embarrassing volumes. My face burned. Any smart thoughts I might have had subtracted from my mind. Well I knew I wasn’t dumb, but it became clear that my own “why” questions with regard to math (the ones that helped math make sense to me) were beyond her scope.

Looking back, I know that life wasn’t easy for my teacher. That she was likely processing a slew of her own frustrations at the unfairness of life. Her barn burnt down that year and her husband had a heart attack. She was teaching a class full of good kids, but 4th graders, after all. All curious and flailing with ungainly limbs and smiling with braces, we were. Chatting constantly during spelling hour and discovering the meaning of our first dirty words. And getting lost in the books, which were my first true love.

Math never got a ton easier, but I worked hard at it and had some great teachers who developed in me the capacity to use math functionally and understand it (at least partially) theoretically. I had a brilliant Theory of Mathematics in Education professor in college who spent hours helping me understand, and helping me pull out a B in his class. And who never intoned that humiliating question “Why can’t you get this?” in front of the class.

my favoritePottery is all angles and shrinkage rates and volumes and mathematical recipes and golden ratios. I don’t live in the math of pottery. I don’t love it. But I have huge respect for it. I don’t have to reject it. And if I can calm the notion that I won’t know how to understand (or fix) a problem, such as those encountered in a marathon glaze mixing extravaganza in which nothing is going right, I can learn things. I can understand angles and curves and weights with scientific method plus the intuition that comes from touching clay, watching clay as a life practice. I can mix glazes effectively. And I can accept mistakes without feeling (much) humiliation. And I can ask for help from my amazing, talented, dedicated, kind teachers. This is a shout out to you, Ben Clark and the rest of you great teachers at FUNKe FIRED ARTS. In yoga they say, “I thank and honor all my teachers and my teacher’s teachers. And so I’ll thank Ms. H. too for schooling me on how not to teach. She was, after all, one of the first to encourage me to write, even though my math troubles were a constant source of consternation. Aren’t we all just fantastically dynamic human beings!

So last weekend, having just eaten a bagel and committed to being patient and predictable, I set out with mostly calm eyes, as opposed to wild cow-friend eyes. “I am patient and predictable and not throwing things.” Not even pottery. For the record, I don’t throw things much, once or twice a decade. But look out brother if you ever catch me in the mood.

It went really well this time. No parallel parking required. No mental math. The scale “thought” for about 45 seconds and zeroed immediately. I took inventory before I started mixing and had every single material I needed in stock. I was looking for an instant gratification glaze mixing experience and that’s exactly what I got. I know it won’t always go that way. But I’m just going to take a minute to bask in how painless that glaze mixing process was for me. I got done and almost started to mix another….almost. One really was enough.

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