With emotionally disturbed students Edgemeade School in Upper Marlboro, potter Karen Schneider is demonstrating that learning to control clay also means learning to control herself.
It has long been accepted that the arts are good therapy because they offer an outlet for self-expression. Less common is the idea that the discipline required to practice an art can also have therapeutic value.
Schneider described her experience with James, one of the most severely disturbed students at Edgemeade, a private, non-profit institution devoted to the education of the emotionally disairbed child.(To protect the students who are in a process of rehabilitation only the first names are used.) James is [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and has a history of aggression that includes several assaults on staff members.
In February, when James first began to work with clay, he declared that he hated it. "I thought I couldn't do anything. I didn't want to work; I felt like destroying what I did," he recalled.
Getting James to make the first piece in clay was not easy.
"He was threatening to break the piece every step of the way," said Schneider."Even when it was done he paid he didn't like it. Only when it was blazed did he say that he was pleased."
Karen said that James, like many of the students, had problems with being everly ambitious. Learning what they can do as opposed to what they want to do is an important step in their progress.
After showing some of his clay pieces, James said, "I want to make the biggest pitcher in the world." When asked how tall that pitcher would be - did he mean as tall as the ceiling? - James thought a moment before answering.
"No. About this tall," he said, indicating a point even with his chest. But I would like to make one as tall as this room - if I had the skills."
The students seem to enjoy learning the skills involved in creating a clay piece. They want to describe the steps and name the materials.
Glenn was building a large pot out of slabs of clay. After adding a slab he gave the pot a careful examination and then asked Schneider: "Should I put on some - what-you-call-its?" "Coils," answered the teacher. Adding the coils, he slowly smoothed them out using a three-fingered technique. Again he surveyed the pot.
"I should even it off now, shouldn't I?" Glenn asked Schneider: "Yes, that's right," she replied. His pleasure at being right was obvious.
"They've experienced so much failure in their lives," said Schneider. "This gives them self-confidence."
Learning to control their emotions is an uneven process for the students. Again Schneider referred to her experience with James. A few weeks ago he walked in and demanded that she give him a clay head he had made with great effort. He said he wanted to destroy it.
"I just sat there saying 'No'; you know the limits," said Schneider. "I saw the look on his face and I was terrified." She called the school's crisis counselor.
James spent the weekend in the school's crisis intervention center under intensive care. On Monday, back in school, he walked up to Schneider. "He gave me a hug and said, 'I'm really happy you didn't give me that piece,'" she recalled.
Teaching at the school has not been easy, said Schneider. She has been angry, she has been scared, but she has also been moved by her students. She recalled her experience with Scott.
"He was the only one of my students to walk out. He'd say, 'It don't look right,' and walk out." After weeks of failure, she showed Scott how to form a wall plaque with his name to contrasting clay. He was delighted; he stayed.
"At the end Scott said, 'Thank you for thinking of something I can make.' He was aware of my struggle," said Schneider.
Schneider is one of the artists-in-residence working in Prince George's County under the CETA job training program. She has had some experience as a volunteer with emotionally disturbed children, but she is not a trained therapist. She has found, however, that being a professional artist has had benefits.
"They (the students) see me go through all the things they go through. Pieces break or don't work, then I get angry. They see me get angry then they see me go back to work."
For Schneider there is similarity between the artist's struggle to create and her students' struggle to overcome their emotional difficulties.
"They're very much on the edge as to who they are as people. Dealing with the richness of emotions they're learning to create themselves as people and that's really what an artist is doing."
Edgemeade School is holding an art open house from 9:30 to 3:30 p.m. today. For information call 888-1330. In May, clay pieces by Edgemeade students will be exhibited at the public library in Baden Community Center.