V for Victory

V for Victory

Less than a minute before the bell rang, I stumbled unceremoniously and panting into the cavernous workshop. I had switched to auto-pilot, born from three years of routine, and headed to the secluded fourth floor band corridor before remembering the change in my schedule. Cursing myself for the mistake as I made the sprint down to the far comer of the basement, I really hoped that my teacher was lenient on latecomers the first day of class.

I had been defined by band. I was Kat, the band geek; quiet, awkward, mostly unknown and okay with it I had even named my sax ”Frank the Tank, Formally Known as the Sexy-maphone.” Band was where my friends were, and where I knew who I was. I had lost that. A ruinous sheet of paper, taped carelessly to a cold cinderblock wall, had shattered my definition. It had waved tauntingly at me, fluttering in the wind of passing band-mates, telling me that I had been beaten in my audition for honor band. I was not good enough to move on to the only band that was acceptable for a senior to play in. I had to give it up. After scrambling to find a class to fill the now open period, I found myself with the choice of Home Ec or Art Metal 1. I wasn’t an apron and “egg baby” kind of girl. I chose Art Metal hoping it might dull my sense of failure, and maybe even bring out the artistic side that my friends and family always said I had.

I shook off those thoughts as I took in deep breaths to calm my heavy breathing. A mix of coppery metal smell and pungent chemicals stung my lungs with each gulping breath. I looked around the room at the massive setup of tall black tables surrounding a single workstation. There was an older man sitting there with a faraway, peculiar expression on his face. His eyes landed on me as I continued my attempt at regaining my composure. With an amused grin, he nodded at an empty stool by the front before turning back to the class.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Introduction to Art Metal. My name is Mr. McGonnall. This year you will learn the basics of jewelry making while I attempt to keep all your appendages attached. Insurance for this class is already ridiculous. Sound like a plan?” He looked around the room and his gaze lingered on a few cliché trouble making types, grinning at their expressions of horror. “Moving on, I would first like to introduce you to some of the tools you will be working with.” He walked throughout the lab, pointing out and explaining tools and machinery I had not noticed before due to my late arrival. Some of it looked downright ghastly.

“He was just kidding about the appendages thing, wasn’t he?”  I whispered to the student next to me. My companion paled. “I’ll take that as a no. This should be a fun year,” I thought sarcastically as I turned my attention back to McGonnall. He held up a small question mark-shaped hand-saw, which for all I could tell was a cheese cutter.

“This,” he started, “is a jeweler’s saw. This is your god. Almost every project you make in this class will start with this little guy here. Now, the important thing to remember when cutting with this saw is this,” he held up two fingers like a peace sign. “V for Victory. The blade goes between your fingers, facing away from you, while you hold the metal with your middle and pointer finger. This is how we make sure we don’t lose a finger. We don’t lose a finger, we are victorious. Let me hear you say it.”

“V for Victory.” The class droned together.

He gave us our first project of simple geometric shapes cut from copper. My design of overlapping circles, squares, and triangles was drawn on tracing paper and taped to my square piece of copper. I braced the frame of the jeweler’s saw on the black work table with the meat of my shoulder and fastened the blade into the clamps, so when I released the pressure, the blade would pull taut. I began to slice and became mesmerized by the vibrations created when saw teeth caught as they dragged through the metal, dust coating my shirt in sparkling glory, and the bloodlike smell of copper.

With each down stroke, a jagged trail grew along the pattern, eventually freeing the design of its square confines. Like a mother with child, I nurtured my creation born from an insignificant sheet of metal. With loving strokes of a file, I reshaped ragged imperfections. Blemishes were smoothed away with the caress of sandpaper until the metal shone. I breathed life as I polished perfection into every edge and surface. I was so lost in the experience that I had not realized I was alone until McGonnall tapped my shoulder. I jumped.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to know if you were aware that the bell rang.”

“Oh, um, no, I didn’t realize. I guess I zoned for a little bit there.” I said quietly.

“It is quite hypnotizing sometimes, isn’t it?” He said in more a statement than a question. I nodded as he smiled and examined my finished piece. “It touches some more than others, and it seems to have grabbed you like it did myself. I expect big things from you now, Miss Goodman.” He walked away. I heard him mumbling and whistling to himself from unseen comers of the workshop as I packed up my materials and scurried off to lunch.

Mr. McGonnall was a special breed: the type of teacher most students feared because it was unclear which side of the crazy/brilliant line he toed. Only those few who earned his respect knew that it was just his way to keep the troublemakers in line. He told me once that no one in their right mind would talk back to a crazy man surrounded by dangerous pointy objects. He had been quickly impressed with my dedication and almost obsessive push for perfection in every project and he pushed me harder, demanding more. He took the time to teach me more advanced techniques while encouraging me to take on multiple projects at once, knowing I could do it. I was honored by his praise and pushed myself to learn everything I possibly could from the eccentric teacher.

A few months later, I walked into the workshop towards an expansive wall of wooden drawers of various sizes, and pulled out a drawer marked with a dirty, worn strip of masking tape adorned with my scribbled name. Rifling through the jumble of scrap metal, tools, and designs doodled on bits of tracing paper, I found the plans for a new piece and made my way past the crowd of students clamoring for the best tools, back to my work station.

McGonnall’s voice cut through the din of scraping chairs and the muttering and shuffling of students. “I will be returning your last projects today. I want you all to get started on your next project right away. Make the most of the time today and the rest of the week. I won’t take any more of your time.” He made his way over to my workstation, seeing me already seated, with tools gathered, and handed me my last project with a smile on his face. ”Kat, this is a beautiful piece. It’s hard to believe this was your first attempt with wood inlay. You should think about entering a piece in the art show.”

“Thanks!” I replied. “But, I don’t know about the art show. I’m only an intro student. My work isn’t good enough.”

“You’d be surprised. You may not have the advanced techniques like the third and fourth years, but the quality is superb. That’s really what people care about, not how hard it was to make. Think about it, okay? ”

“I will. Thanks.” I said, fighting off the blush of embarrassment while turning the project over in my hands.

It was a box made from thick copper pipe, standing about three inches tall and two inches wide. The outside was covered in shallow dimples like a golf ball and had an imperfect patina to darken and accentuate the dimples, giving it a rustic look. The cover had an intricate design of red, purple, and black rare woods sanded in a domed curve, flush with the metal. It was beautiful, I had to admit.

I kept surprising myself with how well my projects turned out. My friends noticed, too, and I had a laundry list of requests for jewelry. Still, I debated with myself on whether or not my work would be good enough. I was afraid to step out of the bubble of comfort that McGonnall’s praise had created, only to find out that my work was truly terrible. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. However, not many people in beginner level art classes were asked to submit their art, so it was an honor and a compliment to be asked. Maybe Mr. McGonnall was right; I did have the quality to my work, even if it was only using basic techniques. I’d seen some of the projects that the more advanced classed had made, the craftsmanship was comparable to my own.

I decided to go for it. I wanted people to see what I was capable of, that I wasn’t shy and awkward “Band Geek Kat” anymore. I had a new definition. I had confidence that, even if my work didn’t sell, someone believed in me. I believed in me. With my newfound confidence, I submitted three pieces to the show and did not care if they sold or not. The fact that I was invited to submit a piece was an honor I was proud to accept. With McGonnall’s encouragement and the joy I felt in creating something, I found more confidence within myself than I had ever felt in the six years I had played band.

I had been so afraid that I was losing the only thing I was any good at. But in doing so, I found this talent that changed the way I look at the world. I found inspiration in nature, especially in trees, whose twisting and interweaving branches challenged me to capture and recreate. I found myself looking at trash lying on the side of the road, searching for that interestingly twisted scrap of metal to design a piece around. Every shape or silhouetted shadow sparked ideas to form. Most of all, I found a calm in the final moments of polishing a piece, when the last smudge of polishing agent was swept away and the metal shone like liquid. It became a living, moving thing in my hands, and I felt like a god. Victory indeed.

– Katherine Goodman, 2nd Place in Essay