Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The story of my very first job

When I was 13 years old I started taking classes at Cypress Community College. I can't remember what classes I took that first semester, except I remember Beginning Voice, because I remember walking through the 3rd floor to the room with the stage that first time - maybe because it was a room I would be spending a lot of time in, in the future.

That classroom was on the 3rd floor of the fine arts building. On the ground floor was the ceramics department. I was walking by one day, trying to find the bathroom - when I heard music coming from this room. I was drawn by the music - Bob Dylan, if I recall correctly. Something folksy, loud, and jangly. I peered in, through the doorway, and saw the most beautiful, vibrant, colorful and dynamic interior.

There was a big sign above a big, thick wooden desk that said "ceramics" in lots of colors, and had lights that flashed. There were murals on every wall. Lockers that were painted. Rows, and rows of wheels, each one painted also. The music was loud. People were laughing. Wheels were humming. It even smelled good, in that room.

I left the doorway, and continued on, determined to be a part of that room, one day.

I tried to get in the next semester, but it was full. The semester after that, I made it. I sat on a stool at the thick wooden table on the first day of classes, nervous and excited and anticipatory and just so thrilled to be there. Lots of the people gathered around the tables clearly already knew each other. I couldn't wait to know them too. I was the youngest by far - 14 years old. The oldest person in that room was 85 years old. I took notes in my journal while Char talked. Char, the instructor, was a very loud woman with a big booming voice, short, spiky silver hair, and bright collared shirts.

She had a lot of personal slogans/mission statements - rules to live by that she wanted us to live by too. She said that this room was our one place in the world that we could turn into our ideal community. But it was up to us. She called the first night of classes her 'WOW' day - the "weed out the wusses" day. This was the first time I had ever heard the phrase "no deposit, no return." She talked about how you get out of this class what you put into it. She made everyone contract for the grade they wanted, that first day, and outlined her expectations for each. She said that if you want to be exceptional, you have to do more, go above, go beyond. She said if you want a C in this class, you'll make the required 6 cups. If you want an A, make 30. I vowed to make 100.

And I did. I went through at least 8 times the amount of clay other beginner students went through. I made far more than a hundred cups that semester. I went to my own classes, 2 nights a week, and also the open lab all day on Fridays, and I started coming to the other classes too. The class had intermediate and advanced students all in the same time, so I spent a lot of time with the advanced students. When I was learning how to center, one advanced student would come up behind me and thump my clay off-center just as I got it perfect - he did that over, and over, and over again. I credit him with my ability to center so fast now.

Everything was a lesson - you "leave the clay like you would leave a hug" said Char. You don't want to pull away abruptly - you want to leave it slow, gently. She made us practice our artistic vocabulary - there was a large chart by the door with words like "dynamic! Vibrant! Energetic!" We had to read 1 book each semester - the choices were Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ishmael, and the Way of the Peaceful Warrior. We ate together in that classroom. We celebrated. We mixed glazes and used power tools. We listened to Tom Waits, a lot.
this is a page from an old journal - a collection of photos of my friends from ceramics, with a light blue acrylic wash over the whole thing. I'm in the top row, the middle picture, with the black and silver superman shirt.

And at the end of every night, the shout would go around - that it was time to clean up. I took particular pride in the huge silver sinks that we dumped our clay water in. I emptied the scrap buckets, and used those big rough tile sponges to soak up every little piece of clay that ended up in the sink. That is one of my strongest memories - I can smell the clay, feel that sponge, even though I am sitting here in my living room right now. The whole time we were cleaning, I'd be singing. I would take requests from other students. We'd sing together, sometimes.

Char did not do tests. She had one oral exam at the end of each semester - it was set up like a game of the weakest link. Every once in a while she would get frustrated if she thought people weren't taking things seriously, and spring a pop quiz about glazes on us. After my first semester, she always exempted me. "She's only 14," Char would roar at the rest of the room, "but she's the only one who gets it 100%."

I took it very seriously. I worked hard. Stayed as late as I could, went as often as I could. I remember the day Char gave me one of the coveted lockers in the lab-tech section, I was beyond ecstatic. I painted it over that day.

There were 3 lab techs for the ceramics lab. Everyone helped, but they made sure glazes got mixed, kilns got loaded and unloaded, kiln shelves got cleaned, things like that. I wanted to be a lab tech. I made sure to spend a lot of time with them, asking what they were doing, following them, carrying things, helping. I wanted to learn, I wanted them to think highly of me, and I wanted to keep this room, this amazing community, going. When I was frustrated with what I was throwing, I'd get up and clean out the clay cage. I'd move items around on the shelves to make more room. I'd wipe off the top of the glaze buckets. It was our place, it was up to us to keep it going.

I took every ceramics class Cypress offered, and repeated each 4 times. I stayed in that classroom for years, until Char retired. That broke my heart, a little bit, which is a story for another day.

If anyone has a spare thousand dollars they'd like to send my way...
The point I am taking so long to get to in this post is that the first *real* job I ever had was at Laguna Clay Company. I wasn't looking for a job - I was 16, living at home, and happy with what I was doing. But one of the lab techs at Cypress worked at Laguna Clay, and asked me if I wanted the job. He said he could recommend me because he knew how hard I worked, from the Cypress studio. So a week later I filled out the paperwork and started working at Laguna Clay. I worked in the store - selling clay, glaze, kilns, and other ceramic supplies to customers. After a little while I started also working upstairs doing ordering for the companies buying bulk. I got to hang out in the glaze lab, where they were inventing new glazes. Because I was there, I got to help name the new (then) line of crystalline glazes. I loved to trouble-shoot with people when they'd bring in a failed project, about what went wrong and how to get the results they wanted. I loved stocking the shelves, even. Everything was covered in clay dust. I was surrounded by people who were living (and breathing...cough) everything ceramic, and I loved it.

I worked at LCC for years, eventually hiring another friend of mine from the Cypress ceramic studio too. I left that job when I had saved up enough money to go travel for months. Since then, they've closed the store, and only ship their products. A GT-800 Laguna Pacifica Wheel is still #1 on my wish list.

And everywhere I go I am reminded of it --
I took this picture while on a Caribbean cruise with my husband this year. We were in Jamaica - and lo and behold... there was a very familiar box. 


  1. I'm not sure if you realize how bizarre this story is. :) Getting offered a job out of nowhere and starting a week later, just because you wholeheartedly pursued something you love... That's how jobs SHOULD work.

    1. You're right - it doesn't feel bizarre to me. It's happened to me more than once, and friends of mine too - but you know what? It's always people who have parents who encouraged them to pursue their passions 100% -- so...almost always unschoolers...

  2. I loved reading this story. How great that you found something you were so passionate about = the meaning of life :)

    That is really great!

    1. I am very glad you enjoyed reading it. If there's anything else you think would be particularly interesting to read about, please let me know. I'm always looking for ideas :)