The Potter's Apprentice - A Shame Story

Photo of celadon glazed pottery bowl

Imagine being asked to cover a lunch break at a folk festival for an artisan that you are planning on apprenticing with. You are given a cash box, and a little worn out card with sales tax amounts printed on it. You have no calculator. You mention to the artist, a potter, that you are not good at math, and that you are uncomfortable with this idea. She giggles and says “nonsense! I will only be away for a half hour to grab a pulled pork sandwich. You’ll be fine.” You feel ashamed because she is minimizing your concerns. You’ve always been “math anxious”. Your inability to work with numbers has affected your life in many ways. You always did poorly in school, and couldn’t keep a waitress or retail job operating a cash register. Your dreams of becoming a nurse were dashed because you failed the medication math exam and you dropped out of nursing school as you felt inadequate. Your parents were disappointed in you. You felt lost and less than. That was almost 20 years ago. You are only being asked to play cashier for thirty minutes but the pressure you feel is tremendous. You tell yourself again, "I’m an adult, how hard can this be? You can do this!"

You are asked to take an item of pottery the customer would like to purchase, wrap it securely in paper, place in a bag, then add up the total cost of the items. Once you have a subtotal, you will look at the paper card to obtain the sales tax and then you’ll add the sales tax onto the subtotal and let the customer know how much he owes. After you’ve been given the money, you will make change and give this to the customer. You take a deep breath, and wait for the first customer, determined to do your best. Five people approach your stand, and your mind goes blank. Everyone is waiting, your hand is shaking as you try to add the numbers on a pad of paper. You’ve given back the wrong change, miscalculated totals, and forgot to add in the sales tax. Forget about counting up! You find it difficult to breathe, your face is flushed, you’re sweating in your long plaid skirt with a stupid frilly bonnet on your head. You keep smiling though, pretending like you have everything under control, handing out business cards for the potter, complimenting the customers on their choices, and wondering why you ever agreed to this in the first place.

Graphic Numbers make me numb with math signs and numbers all over the page

A half hour later the potter returns from her pulled pork sandwich, notices your mistakes and your upsetment, and shoots you an expression of mild annoyance and disappointment when you inform her that you’ve just botched up a number of transactions. Now, it’s your turn to take a break. In a fog, you wander aimlessly around the fairgrounds, trying to make sense of what just happened. You don’t feel hungry, and you don't feel like looking around at the sights. You’ve shut down. You can’t feel your feet on the ground, as you’ve gone numb, you’ve stuffed it inside. You count down the hours until the end of the event. You are silent on the ride home, and you find your mind trailing off during the chatty upbeat conversation in the car. You aren’t feeling very upbeat. You have no appetite for the ice cream that the potter stops to buy everyone in the car. You felt you didn’t deserve the ice cream anyway, since you're such a “screw up”.

You return home and the tears come. Your husband meets you at the front door, wide eyed. You rip off the stupid skirt and stuff it, and the frilly bonnet, in a bag. It’s hard to shake these feelings off. They are all too familiar. You feel ashamed and inadequate. Then comes the anger. You’re angry at yourself, angry at the potter, angry at the other woman in the car who can make change. Why didn’t she listen to me? Why didn’t she believe me? Then you berate yourself. There goes the tape again. The one that plays itself over and over when events like this happen. There is something fundamentally wrong with you. Why can’t you do what others do so easily? The tape continues, and you let it wash over you. You feel small.

photo of small ceramic pots on a hand

A week later, you write the potter a polite note, thanking her for the opportunity to help and for the ice cream. You repay her for the price of the clay that she had offered you in exchange for helping her out. You inform her that you are unable to apprentice with her in her studio as something’s come up, and you don’t offer her any more details. She’d never understand anyway. You’re done. The block of clay sits unused, and you let your dreams of working as a potter fade away. The next folk festival you attend, you cringe when you see a sign for pulled pork sandwiches. You never liked pulled pork, anyway...

Shame. Another opportunity lost.

I was the apprentice. - Eileen

Moving Forward:

In the past I let my failures define me. I know better now. My failures are not who I am inside, or what I am capable of becoming.

Failure and missed opportunity were an ongoing theme for me. I focused on my weaknesses at the expense of my strengths, and I was uncomfortable asking for help. I did not understand that my failures could be opportunities for learning and growing. I spent a lot of time comparing myself to others, and always fell short of my ideal. I dropped out, quit and started again many times. Persistence wasn't something I was good at. I preferred to run away.

At the age of 18, I dropped out of nursing school in the first 10 months, after struggling through the program and failing a medication math exam. I felt the need to get away, so I applied to live as an exchange student in Sweden for a year to “find myself”. Living away from home helped me to gain some perspective, and gave me some time to lick my wounds. Upon my return to the U.S., I was able to begin a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. It was a major that did not have a huge math requirement, and my advisor let me work around some of this creatively through taking a foreign language.

I realized that one of the things I enjoyed most about my brief experience as a nursing student was helping each patient to feel as comfortable as possible during their stay in the hospital. I was able to identify this desire to help others as a strength for me which helped in the selection of my new major. I obtained my degree in a little under 10 years part-time, while I worked at a variety of temporary jobs. The combined work and college experience was stressful for me, as I struggled to maintain a healthy GPA.

This was a time before PC’s and Macs, and Iphones with apps. The technology that most of us take for granted now. All assignments were either written by hand or on an electric typewriter, and I used my share of Wite Out. Toward the end of my senior year, I spent much of my paycheck from the local college diner where I worked to hire a typist who could read my poor handwriting and type my research papers. I requested a dishwasher job working the night shift, as I never got the hang of waitressing as I was unable to keep track of who got which meal at which table, and I was afraid of operating the dreaded cash register. At age 27, upon graduating, I chose not to celebrate my success with a graduation party. I felt I had taken too long, and it was time to move on to the world of work, whatever that might look like for me. In retrospect, I wish I had acknowledged my achievements and taken some time to celebrate.

Hindsight enables me to understand my past struggles. After my youngest son was identified as dyslexic, I began to reflect on my past and was able to put together the pieces. I realize that my challenges in math, although I'm not formally diagnosed, are likely due to dyscalculia, a math disability. I realize now that it's never too late to learn something new, to ask for help, and to choose a new path for myself that is more in line with my strengths. It’s how I perceive my failures and how I rebound from them that is most important. I understand that I must be vigilant, daily, at keeping those old ineffective, damaging messages of the past from occupying my mind. it’s important for me to reach out to others early and often when I’m feeling stuck. I know that persistence and hard work pays off, and that it’s important to be patient with myself. I make mistakes daily, but I am not a mistake. I've learned that it’s o.k. to fail...Really! It’s how I will grow.

More on the value of failure coming soon!


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