Once we had a student named Sharif Bey. When I first laid eyes on him, I thought, This is going to be a tough one. Like so many kids who come here, Sharif seemed bitterly withdrawn and uncommunicative when he arrived. He was a ninth grader, a skinny kid who drifted down the hallways like a shadow, with his shoulders slumped and his head bowed down. He spoke only in whispers and kept his gaze riveted on the floor. It seemed he didn’t have it in him to look you in the eye.

After his orientation period, Sharif decided to enroll in our ceramics program. We have a bright, airy studio outfitted with state-of-the-art tools and equipment. Dozens of finished pieces, resting on shelves and racks, provide tangible examples of the rewards of hard work. The space is always buzzing with a soft, creative energy as kids move their pieces from the pottery wheels to the worktables and eventually to a room where they are fired in our kilns. Most of our students think of the studio as a magical place. But Sharif showed no signs of even noticing the space around him.

On his first day in the studio he dragged a chair into a corner, slumped into it, and stared into space. He seemed to be ignoring his instructors and the other students, and was apparently immune to the creative activity all around him.

But you never know what’s going on inside a kid’s head, so when his instructors asked me what they should do with him, I said, “Just keep giving him clay.” To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for the kid. His only chance, I knew, was that the nurturing environment he was surrounded by, and the creative vibe that filled the studio every day, would change him on some level none of us could see. Happily, that’s exactly what happened.

One day when he was finally ready, Sharif quietly loaded some clay on a wheel and began to work. What happened next was one of the many small miracles that keep me doing what I do: The kid turned out to be a natural. Everyone saw it right away. The technique came to him quickly. More important, he had the touch, he had a sense of proportion, he had an artist’s eye for texture, color, and grace. In no time he was turning out beautiful pieces, getting better and better with each one. I knew what he was going through, because I had gone through it myself: He was getting his first taste of meaningful success, and success felt good to him, better than almost anything be had ever felt. He wanted more of that feeling, and he knew that in order to have it he would have to get better. So he opened up to the world.

He sought out the help of his teachers. He brainstormed with other talented kids. He studied the work of established artists and experimented with the clay, eager to find his own style. Working with clay had given him a sense of purpose and direction. It had given him a passion to achieve. That passion helped transform him, and after a few months with us he seemed like a whole new kid.

I remember seeing him in the studio one day, waiting for a piece he’d finished to be taken out of the kiln. For ceramic artists, removing a piece from the kiln is always an act of faith; so many things can go wrong while a piece is being fired. But Sharif was standing tall as he waited, smiling and chatting with friends, his face lit up with confidence and anticipation. I saw hope, humor, and enthusiasm in his eyes. It was the look of a kid who expects to succeed. When I saw that, I knew Sharif was going to be all right.