Part two of Ban the Smoking Gun of Government from Schools
My first day back to class was eventful. The weather has recently taken a turn for the worse. I feel bad that a one-degree-warmer climate causes problems for other parts of the world, but it had been one lovely December here in Michigan. I didnít feel that bad for the rest of the world. Itís not as if I could do anything about the weather anyway, except enjoy it. As I always say, happiness is not a crime.
As I crossed the road on foot I kept an eye out for drivers with cell phones. They tend to ignore the crosswalk signs, and as usual this was not the hill on which I wanted to die. My unscientific survey to date indicates to me that drivers of color are far more likely to stop at the crosswalk for a pedestrian than white drivers, by about ten to one, earning them a warm smile from yours truly, especially on cold days like this. So much for government claims that people of color are surely the bad guys.
I noticed a new cyclone fence had been erected around the building I usually pass. It obstructed the sidewalk, so I found myself blazing a trail through a field. I emerged from some trees with my armful of tools on a steep, newly frozen embankment. I really didnít want to go all the way back to my car and start over, so I picked my way down the hill, barely managing to stay erect on the frozen, vertical wall of grass. Beside me was the new fence. It would have made a handy prop except that my hands were full. As I said, Iím not really that old, so I try to take some calculated risks. Life is nothing if not a grand experiment.
Every undertaking in life has its frustrations. There seemed to me a great number of avoidable problems with this clay studio. Lots of problems can be avoided altogether simply by being organized, and this one wasnít. Most employees were not happy to be here and therefore grumpy and not usually helpful but they could afford it - they were unionized in this quasi-government world of academia.
Lots of students were only there for class credit and could be very careless with other peopleís projects. Iíve had a number of pots anonymously damaged. Some artwork just disappears. I still have pots from last semester that havenít been fired yet (cooked in a kiln.) There were always missing materials, materials improperly used and ruined, potterís wheels that were too slow to use, whistled loudly or just didnít work at all. Most people arenít careful with things that donít belong to them and no one owns public property, especially not a bureaucrat.
Today I would be facing a new teacher and it was not an unwelcome idea. The last one had taught me a lot about clay, but it came at a price. Harry was obviously gay, which was no problem to me. He admitted to me one time that he was a diva, which was a manageable problem. In telling me this, he had handed me the information I needed to navigate his domain. All I had to do was let him have the last word and get the biggest laugh, not challenge him in any way. In return he basically left me alone and taught me what I wanted to know. Youíre probably wondering why I didnít just look for another teacher. My Dad used to say that we all have our funny little ways. Conceivably another teacher would too. Besides, this was close to home and affordable, with decent hours of operation. (I had already paid for its construction with tax dollars.) It was a choice I made and it worked for me.
As Iíd figured out early on how to avoid Harryís wrath, the only problem left for me was the fact that he could leave alone no opportunity for double entrendre, and in a clay studio there exists unlimited potential. (Each semester at least one young person felt the need to create a phallic symbol.)
Harry seemed irritatingly obsessed with sex. I knew when midway had been reached each semester, because his predilection would begin to expose itself, so to speak. He would start using girlish gestures and overt affectations. By mid-semester heíd begin pouncing on double entendre as if heíd been trying hard to keep it under wraps until well past the time anyone could withdraw from the class without penalty. (In all fairness, I admit I have a suspicious mind.)
I couldnít care less about anyoneís sexual preferences. On the other hand, I donít want to know anything about them either. I donít go around making a fuss about being hetero, especially not to my own students in my home school or parenting classes. Itís no oneís business, and itís a violation of a psychological boundary to impress my sexuality upon my students. A tenured teacher in a government-saturated community college is another story.
The predictability and regularity of his sex jokes was often annoying, but as I said, Harry was mostly harmless to me because I had gotten his number. When heíd start with the sex jokes, Iíd make myself scarce. Iíve found that college staff tends to circle the wagons when one of their own is threatened, so open objection or disproval of him wasnít viable. I had learned long ago that Harry was temperamental and not about to change his method of operation. I also knew that he could make a studentís existence miserable if he so desired. Again, this was not the hill on which I wanted to die.
Those not hip to The Way It Is in Harryís classroom suffered public humiliation often and hard. Iíd hear the uninitiated make the mistake of arguing with Harry after heíd issued a decree or challenging him on an opinion. Some even attempted to one-up him occasionally. This boded badly for them. They would always be very sorry later when he exacted his revenge publicly and it wasnít hard to do, after all, no one there knew as much as Harry knew. I didnít like this set up, but itís what it was and I had learned to do what I needed to do to get what I wanted without being untrue to myself or incurring damage until last semester.
Over the years in the student Ė teacher relationship, Harryís subtle inquiries about my beliefs assured him that I was anti-war. He had long ago made the assumption that that must make me a Democrat. I had never previously felt the need to divest him of that assumption. It was none of his business what my political opinions are anyway, right? Still, I had no intention of stirring up a hornetís nest for no good reason. I had no idea what an awful secret it was to hold.
I had become skillful at navigating Harryís domain to the point of complacency. Imagine, feeling psychological safety in an art studio after several years! One day late last November he sideswiped me. As I said, politics has no place in a pottery class, but this wasnít any class, it was Harryís domain, and a little power is a heady thing. Referring to the outcome of the November elections, he asked me, ďarenít you happy with how we did?Ē
I can keep my mouth shut as well as most people and I donít go looking for trouble. I just want to make pots. However, when asked directly, I was not about to take it up the tailpipe on this one and infer that I was part of the ďweĒ to which he referred. Thereís also no way Iím going to baa-baa to a little tyrant when push comes to shove without a gun to my head. At the time I didnít think to say that I didnít want to talk politics, but that answer probably wouldnít have pacified him anyway. He needs to be king of his domain. Refusing to rise to a challenge is not the same as bowing down. Besides, Harry doesnít request a topic - he chooses them, so it probably wouldnít have helped me to try to dodge the subject. I felt I had no way out but the truth. Without stopping my work I sealed my fate with the simple statement that I had no hope of anything improving; that all politicians are liars.
I just wanted to make pots! Arenít we there to work? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, right? Wrong! This is a free country, but not in Harryís academic territory.
Later I saw him watching me work. He was like a jackal looking for weak prey. Iíve been torturing clay for several years, but weak spots Iíve got, especially seeing as how I can only usually sign up for one semester of it a year. The thing is, I donít take the class for a grade. Iíve taken this same class half a dozen times. I basically just register and pay to have access to the studio. Iím there because I want to make something, to learn to make better things. Itís generally acknowledged among college teachers that non-trads like me often make the most attentive students. Many traditional students I see in community college are often too burned out by the stifling environment of government schools.
It had been about eight months since I last had the opportunity to practice my technique, so I admit that I was rusty. As I imagine is true of most things, it takes weeks to get your skill level back up to where it was if you stop practicing. After my insulting remark about his political party, Harry was gunning for me. He found his opportunity when he saw me struggling with a mound of clay. He came over and let me have it. Everyone else stopped working to listen because this is how he often introduces a technique to the group.
His exact words are a blur, but it was something to the effect that I had been coming there for a long time and I should have been challenging myself more and developed a higher level of skill. Basically, he used a five-minute tirade to accuse me of slacking. Silly me, thinking I could mention that the emperor had no clothes and live to tell about it in his kingdom!
Honestly, I enjoy a sunset or a walk on the beach as much as most folks, maybe more because living here in Metro Detroit, I canít take those things for granted. But if thereís one thing Iím not, itís a slacker. I canít afford to waste my time or money on things I donít consider important. My life is getting shorter every minute. Itís true that I donít spend time ironing underwear or linens. I only dust when I canít avoid it. Itís also true that I have my share of character defects: Iím a perfectionist, workaholic, head job, sure, but slacker, no way. Harry had had to scramble to find something with which to berate me, and apparently ten pounds of wet clay spinning vertically in the air was adequate.
As Bender would say on Futurama, ďask not for whom the bone bones. It bones for thee.Ē As usual, I did my best to stay out his path for the remainder of the semester. To assuage his conscience he tried to offer me overly warm greetings at all subsequent opportunities. I just wanted to be left alone. The last time he saw me adding on some finishing touches to a pot he pointed it out to the other students and told them that I was a talented potter. This compliment, his second one in six years, did nothing for me. I just wanted to finish and exit, happy in the knowledge that he would not be ďteachingĒ me the following semester.
As so often happens to petty tyrants, Harry had been promoted. As I said, I was not altogether sorry to find myself facing a new teacher. Other than being pretty sure Harry would replace himself with another gay man, I did not really have any other expectations. As long as I could get my hands on the materials and the information I wanted, I would keep paying tuition and torturing clay.
As usual I signed up for the afternoon hand-building class because afternoons were less crowded than evenings and because as a student of this class I did not have to participate in Harryís yearly, wheel-throwing charity extravaganza. This time slot gave me access to the materials and equipment I wanted and a skate on a lot of what I didnít want, but now I faced a new situation.
Concluded in The New King
Retta Fontana is an atheist, anarchist, baker, homeschooler, potter, parenting teacher and a student of Forex. Children are her favorite people. She lives in Metro Detroit.