My family's clay class explodes with lessons

Our assignment seemed simple: make a cup or bowl.

We live in the city. Actually, on a fairly quiet street with a small yard and a tree between us and the street itself. People walk by with their dogs. Trucks do not, as a rule, thunder by. Nonetheless, as I swim awake in the mornings, I sometimes have the half-dreaming notion of our house as a raft of calm stuck in underbrush next to a raging river. The world is out there with its speed and anger.

To step out of the house takes preparation, courage. So, although I love the calm of the raft, I am also always looking for ways to slow down the river, and this fall my husband and I found something we thought might work: We and our two kids took a clay class at a local community-arts center.

We were early for the first class, so we greeted the teacher and sat for a few minutes breathing the dry red smell while the kids poked at the slippery block of clay wrapped in clear plastic and sitting tantalizingly close on our table.

Running my fingers over the array of sharp and blunt tools spread before me, I was nervous. Would I understand the teacher's instructions? Would I be able to follow them? Would I like what I made? I was filled with warm respect for my children, who are often in this position. Every day they have to turn themselves to new tasks. Every day there is the possibility of incomprehension or failure, but they bound forward, breathless to know and do. Even now, they want that clay out of its plastic. They want to begin.

The second the lump of clay is in my hands, I feel a cool satisfaction. I make a smooth lump and dig my thumb into the center of it. Out of the corner of my eye I see my daughter's flat-ended fingers shovel into her thumb. She puts her shoulders (hunched) and her tongue (tip delicately protruding) into the task.

Across the table my husband and son are similarly absorbed. The task is the simplest possible - to make a cup or bowl from a thumb-print in a lump of clay, then pull and smooth it until it looks right.

"I'm going to make a cup," my daughter says.

"Great," I say, but my mind is on my own vision. I am thinking of shells. I want a sugar bowl that looks like a shell, with rippled edges meeting the lid exactly, like the lipless mouth of an oyster. I wet my fingers and smooth the edges. Then I cut tiny shell shapes and stick them to the outside of the bowl, and one inside for humor; you will only see it when the sugar is all gone.

I shape the sides in a purely physical memory of making pie crust with my mother. She could flute the edges of five pie crusts with a deft finger-thumb-finger movement so quick I barely saw it, in the time it took me to do half of one, turning the crust gray in my sweaty frustration. Somehow, though, the movement has transferred itself to me. I know what to do.

Five minutes before the end of class, I sit back and grin. My bowl isn't perfect. It's not exactly round, and I can already tell that the lid won't fit right, but I like it. I let out a long shallow breath of satisfaction, and as I do so, I feel heat pulsing from the seat next to me. My daughter's hands are tight and angry. I hear her taking in big gasps of air.

"It's not right. I hate it." The cup in her hands is thick, and heavy, and to my way of thinking, beautiful, full of sturdy character and energy. But I haven't paid enough attention. She has been struggling for an hour, and I have come awake just too late to avert the crisis. Tears pop cartoon-like from her eyes.

Her mouth is a pink O in a red face, and her little hands, filled with sudden strength, crush the cup in a sweeping passion. Gray sludge oozes from her fingers.

How is this an island of calm in a world of speed and anger? Well, it is because this is the beginning of the story and not the end, because there were nine more classes - time to learn about what you can and cannot do with clay. It is cool and thick and wonderfully elastic, but it cannot sustain too much of its own weight; it sometimes needs propping up until it has solidified.

At the end of the first class, after we had mopped my daughter's tears, we gingerly put aside our work to dry, so it could be fired for the next class and we could glaze it. When we arrived for the second class, though, a pile of rough off-white chunks and shards lay on the counter next to the sink.

"Something exploded in the kiln" the teacher explained. "It happens all the time." She stood there in her clay-stained sweat shirt, loose and relaxed, unapologetic. It may not have been her fault, but couldn't she have paid a little more homage to our natural feelings of disappointment? I looked down at my kids' faces. Was this to be one of life's crushing lessons? Sometimes things break and you just can't fix them. It's not your fault, and it's nobody else's either. Get used to it.

Apparently not. "So what shall we make this week?" my son said, not even tempted to search through the clay rubble for something salvageable. With the double-ended cheese wire, his favorite tool, he sliced off a big lump of fresh clay and started pounding happily away at it. It seemed that he had no trouble taking the long view. Yes, for now something was broken, but wasn't the learning that came out of it a kind of fixing? Surely the best kind, the kind which understands that the idea for a bowl can't be broken. The skill to make one can't explode.

My daughter made a new cup using the careful hands she was developing, thinning out the walls a little more, taking time to smooth the joints. The new one had the old one inside it, but it was elegant as well as sturdy.

And my new sugar bowl? It sits in the kitchen reminding me that a white glaze isn't my favorite; that to fit a lid requires a different construction; that we loved our clay class, and emerged with stiff hands and calmed spirits every week, even when it was bitingly cold as we pushed open the door into the dark.

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