Back in 1960 I did something that seemingly made no sense, and I would continue to do this for another four years.
What did I do? I took ceramics as an elective in the ninth grade at Peabody High School, even though I had no artistic talent compared to my brother. He drew well enough to earn a scholarship to Carnegie Museum art classes at age 12. He excelled at woodworking and was a whiz at electric shop — an all-around skilled craftsman.
I had none of those abilities. In grade school the art teacher said to me, after a painful day with watercolors: “You’re certainly not your brother.” This set a pattern of artistic failure.
So why did I take ceramics? The answer to this fundamental question, pondered by great minds and competent guidance counselors, is simple: hormones. I was hopelessly in love with females — not adept at wooing them, but still profoundly influenced by their existence.
Ceramics class, as the legend was conveyed to me, had by far the most girls while avoiding the kind of stigma for boys associated with home economics. I guess God was saying: “My son, if thou cannot draw, throw a pot.” So I sallied forth into the world of clay, sand and plaster, and my teacher cried!
His name was Edward Kosewicz, a soft-spoken man known as “Mr. K.” who did not run his class with iron discipline. It was an art class, and he encouraged free expression and artistic exploration. He liked mixed media, and he himself was a gifted artist in all genres.
This was the perfect atmosphere for a basically obedient child to let go of his quiet demeanor. I never stopped talking, especially with my buddy, Emery. We ogled every girl and took mental notes of what a knockout she might or might not be.
This behavior, combined with the artistic deficits, was a formula for failure. It meant I might be cast out into the sea of future “gear heads,” many of whom in the end would carve out better lives than most scholars. This did not happen.
After completing a series of lame bowls and lopsided coffee cups, I received a D for the art and an E in citizenship. Emery had more talent and fared better. My report card did not sit well at home.
Mary Rose Butera wanted an explanation for this “out-of-character” behavior. She homed in on Mr. K, ignoring the clear fact of my incompetence, and accused him at open house of being “anti-Italian,” of all things.
I tried to stop her, but she insisted on this harebrained approach. He fielded it with aplomb and explained that there was little to show in the way of any credible work on my part. He even got me to admit that I never stopped talking in class.
My mother and I left, and I finished the year with a C. I signed up for ceramics again the next year, and Mr. K. let me stay. I toned down the “motor mouth” and soon discovered the technique of “sand casting,” a simple art with amazing results.
I still tried to make pots and cups, but sand was my milieu. Mr. K left me alone, and I was free to continue my girl-watching, thinking that he didn’t notice me all that much.
In my senior year, after an accumulation of C’s and B’s, it was time to wrap up my shaky career in the art world. Mr. K began that semester with a slide show for the ninth-graders new to the class. He showed one male student’s wonderful human figures and a girl’s incredible pots.
Then a slide came up of a sand cast of the Golden Triangle, and he said that if you want to learn how to make one to see the artist Ron Butera: “He is in the back of the room.” All eyes turned to me and I blushed, crimson for sure.
As my college years unfolded thereafter, Mr. K was always in the back of my mind. When I became a teacher, there was no better model, even though I taught history. To take an unruly child, show him no malice and find a place for him in your world is the greatest gift you can bestow.
That was my goal, through success or failure, for the rest of my teaching career, and I am thankful that he was there to inspire it.
Ronald J. Butera of Shaler, who taught for 31years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The PG Portfolio welcomes “Back to School” submissions about memorable educational experiences, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.