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Adult Education

Tall and matronly, his hair thick, youthful and grey, his skin a pointillist mask of rosacea pink and white, Don’s eyes drift chastely down to my chest as he stoops to my height to tell me he’s a widower, retired.

‘Are you alone?’ he asks mournfully, looking at my bare fingers. ‘Are you married? Do you have children at home?’

The toolbox he’s brought to class is hefty, industrial orange. Ki-Jung, our ceramics teacher, scorns it, then scrambles through it mercilessly, snapping a thin piece of wood in half and unraveling a reel of nylon thread. Don and I watch, mesmerized, as Ki-Jung ties the thread to the wood and attaches it to the spinning pottery wheel, twirling it around itself for resilience. He uses this ad hoc tool to slice a block of red clay into squares that he rolls into shapely, textured balls.

Don is sorrowful that we’re not using a more forgiving class of clay. He’s a hand builder who has come to Ki-Jung’s class to learn how to throw at the wheel. I’m a beginner, eager and loose in my innocence. Ki-Jung outlines his methods in opposition to other ceramics teachers in Australia. To other ceramics teachers in the world.

We begin with posture. It’s where everything starts. An elbow rests on the corresponding knee, and we lean into it and relax our shoulders. Don latches onto the word relax, as though it’s been a source of torment all his life.

‘But that’s my problem, you see, Ki-Jung. That’s the thing I find impossible to do. When it comes to throwing, I’ve never been able to relax.’

His self-deprecation is unmanly and demanding, and as though to restore himself he shows us photos of his hand built sculptures on this phone. I watch Ki-Jung as he studies the stately, adventurous pieces. He looks skeptical, and surprised, and disappointed. He returns Don’s phone and leaves us alone to practice.

Cautiously, we apply pressure to the wheel’s pedal, as though learning to drive. Our hands clasp the tense, spinning ball of clay uneasily. At first our balls lift right off the metal wheel. We add trickles of water from small plastic buckets to secure them.

My ball quickly turns sodden, diminishing, as though the clay is being absorbed into my hands. Liquid flicks form luscious melting puddles of pink cream in the wheel’s metal tub. Ki-Jung returns to observe our ineptitude and aggressively guides our fingers into the proper position. Don’t we remember, don’t we remember? he says.

‘I just can’t do it, I can’t relax my shoulders,’ says Don, his anxious babbling making him a figure of disdain in the otherwise composed workshop.

Two quiet, intermediate potters sit across from us, making ungainly, professional looking pots, the younger man openly smirking in my direction and trying to snag my attention with contemptuous sighs about Don. Is it a flirtatious collusion he is seeking, or am I being vain? I am not yet ready to make my feelings for Don public. And I am grateful for him, that in contrast I appear poised.

‘Confidence, confidence, confidence,’ Don implores himself in whispers of positive affirmation, and his helpless, dominating energy draws me close.

Ki-Jung sneers at this word. It is patience, not confidence, he is teaching. Coming to terms with the tedium of learning how to throw.

Our immature forms collapse again and again, their rims folding inward in thin, dramatic ruffles, like Shakespearean collars. They’re beautiful in their collapse, the natural, flagging flutes forming compelling expressions of ruin, and it is difficult to toss them on top of the clumpy mountain of clay for recycling.

My lap is cold. It’s covered in a small blue towel that’s now stiff and brown, and my jeans feel wet beneath it. The cuffs of my cardigan, and all up the arms, are flecked in powdery, pinky dabs.

We start again. We take new balls from the stack that Ki-Jung rolled for us, my innocence demolished, feeling worse than when we began, for now we have learnt that we are stupid with clay and others have witnessed this about us.

Gingerly, we try to protect ourselves by blaming the clay. Perhaps it is too hard? Too soft? Don says again that it is not a forgiving class of clay, and perhaps that’s why he’s having trouble getting his ball centred securely. I watch his uneven brown blob wobble gainlessly on the wheel, holding in the silent, internal hysterics that have arisen at his expense. Maybe it’s the wheel? We clean them, running a large, squeezed out sponge over everything but its very centre, where we leave a flat, dry disc to make the next ball adhere.

Where is the glide I was expecting? The glamour and sensation of grace? The simple making of something? I’d pictured myself at the wheel with my arms in open, balletic postures as I shaped the pliant, wet walls of a serene Japanese object. I feel the first threat of boredom and indifference. A blankness, and a desire to go somewhere for a drink. I want the thing, I realize, not the process. This has been a problem all my life.

 

At the end of class there’s nothing to show for our efforts. I wash my arms up to the elbows in cold running water. It’s dismaying, how insubstantial and harmless the clay now seems, how cleanly and instantly it rinses away. There is no sign of it, even in my fingernails.

‘When I first started I spent six whole weeks doing nothing but making cylinders,’ says the older of the two quiet potters. He is standing behind me at the sink, tall and lean, with an aloof, jerky manner. His teeth are long. He has authority, that old male kind, and it takes me a moment to see that he is attempting to reassure me, and I am grateful.

But I tone down our brief exchange in deference to Don, who has complained that the two quiet potters are rude and unfriendly. I move away from the sink in my weird, overwhelming loyalty to Don.

I have come unprepared. I have to borrow plastic bags from Don to store my clay till next week. Advice for future classes, Don says in his first moment of command, and I hear within his tone a secret bossiness inside his helplessness. Buy a roll of kitchen bin bags, not the big ones, medium sized, and always keep spares on hand. His roll is thick and smells of lemon scent. He tears off a bag and teaches me to wrap the clay loosely and securely, tying the plastic in a tight knot. We tuck our blocks side by side in a small, shared storage box.

‘Don’t wait for me,’ he says, turning away to commit to a total reorganization of his toolbox.

I turn to look at him from behind as I leave. At his big curved back, the shapeless seat of his jeans, his loose apron and benign, rounded shoulders. It is as though he is standing at an open oven, checking on cake.

And I think about how all our teacher’s agitation and frustration bounced off my hard, resilient surfaces, and flowed directly into the path of Don’s open, sorry soul. How it slotted in. How it fitted. How it matched.

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