Dutifully crossing my arms behind my back, I listened as my superior listed my project of the week. Seated on his stool and stroking his goatee, he leaned forward on his desk strewn with papers that seemed to continually overflow from the surface.

“We need to carve an inkwell out of foam. But it also must look like a boat. Do you think you can do that?”

With utmost respect and a sense of solemn obligation, I assured him I could complete the task swiftly and efficiently. I had greatness surrounding me, from the successful movie posters he had hanging in his office to the multiple sketches for scene designs used in decades worth of theatrical shows. I knew I wasn’t assuring him of my competency lightly.

It was only my second semester working on props for shows at Bob Jones University, and the school’s annual Living Gallery show, where for Easter live models pose in traditional classical paintings, approached the theater department quickly. Although I was in good standing with my peers and my bosses, I couldn’t help but feel as if my performance on the inkwell was tied to my success in this job. Generally, newer employees receive cataloguing or housekeeping tasks around the Props Shop, such as storing away rented-out props or sweeping the Scene Shop. Therefore, it was an exciting honor to be employed on a creative project for a show! Only three to five props find life, being made from scratch for a show, so to have one project solely under my artistic vision felt like the utmost honor of my career in the theater thus far.

After astutely seeing myself out of Mr. Waggoner’s office, I marched downstairs, ideas whizzing through my head just like bubbles on a computer screensaver. I knew immediately I’d need Styrofoam, sandpaper, and an Exacto knife. Thankfully, I had a reference image for this abstract inkwell I was to carve. Its home was in Michael Caravaggio’s The Calling of Matthew, just a brown, lumpy object hiding in dim light in the middle of the painting.

I spent nearly a full week and a half laboring over my child of an inkwell. Styrofoam was quite the fickle mistress, as you had to shave the sides repeatedly with sandpaper to get the correct angle, but over-shave just a bit and there was no replacing the material you just removed. Plus, there was the unfortunate fact that the table the inkwell rested on was slanted at a forty-five-degree angle, so the inkwell had to be formed with slanted supports underneath it in order to keep the inkwell straight enough to hold a pen inside it. After adding the supports under the inkwell, I had to paint the inkwell an identical shade of brown that matched all the other earthy tones in the painting. However, the Styrofoam acted like a sponge and absorbed all the paint I put on it, so it was a race against time to blend paint and create a Renaissance-like effect on the inkwell itself.

Finally, I took a step back in the Scene Shop to admire my creation. And wow, was it hideous. The boat sat at a jutting obtuse angle, with sharp corners that made the inkwell more like a trapezoid than a gently rounded surface that could float on water. There were parts of the inkwell that refused to be smoothed down by sandpaper, and that left certain parts of the inkwell structurally unsound. Where there was supposed to be a smooth surface of paint were bald spots from pieces of Styrofoam attempting to rebel against its maker, just like a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster.

We haven’t even gotten to the writing quill. At the end of my construction, I was to make a faux writing quill out of a wooden skewer, but underestimating the thinness of the Styrofoam, I accidentally poked a hole through the bottom of the boat while trying to get the quill to picturesquely balance against the side of the inkwell. Yet, I refused to have spent such an ungodly amount of time on a project and not present it to my boss. Without a doubt, I was ashamed of the final product, but I figured there would be dim enough lighting on the stage. Surely I couldn’t restart since I had already spent a week and a half of the company’s time on such a laborious job.

Like a child tiptoeing to a parent to present them a painting for their fridge, I offered my pathetic inkwell to Mr. Waggoner. To this day, I still don’t know how he didn’t laugh out loud! Bless his mature heart for withholding his rightful judgment. Instead, he politely tilted his head, scratched the top of his scalp, and said, “Um.”

Then, Mr. Waggoner proceeded to offer one of the most valuable lessons I’d ever hear during my four years of college. He mentioned he intentionally didn’t give exact guidance for the project, with the hopes that I’d experiment and learn through trial and error. Suddenly, prior frustration dissipated as I learned there was a purpose for the vagueness of the assignment. He honestly told me what I presented to him wasn’t sufficient for what we needed for Living Gallery, yet he encouraged me to try again and take as much time as I needed to implement what I learned from my previous failure. I believe my jaw physically dropped, for at first I felt duped. Hoodwinked, even. Could teachers do that? Could they be unclear in order to teach a student a lesson? Wouldn’t it have been a better use of everyone’s time to tell me exactly how to execute the making of this frustrating Styrofoam enigma?

Yet, the longer I sat with the concept of value through trial and error, the more it shaped my feeble freshman world. That one statement of Mr. Waggoner’s gradually laid the foundation of what I believed leadership to be and how I began to approach my schoolwork, time management, and interpersonal relationships while I was in school. Over the course of that next semester, I kept mentally returning to the worth of patience with myself, of understanding that the most desirable result of most situations was not immediate success, but disciplined, self-taught learning.

With renewed zeal, I raced to the Scene Shop, uncertain again of how to make an inkwell that was anything other than misshapen, but confident I would have the time and resources necessary to figure it out individually. Within three days, I built a transformed inkwell I could proudly call my own. It relied heavily on superglue and gentle handling on the behalf of whoever carried it, but it was worlds apart from its predecessor. Jubilantly, I presented the second inkwell to Mr. Waggoner as he grinned and said,

“It’s perfect.”

By all means, I should have scrapped the Quasimodo-esque ancestor inkwell I originally made. But, after that semester, I decided to keep it for my own personal use, for decoration and a reminder. It’s rather comical when a person visits my dorm room, surrounded by sentimental pictures, dried flowers, a plethora of literature books, and then they’re greeted with an unseemly foam construction. But to me, the foam inkwell fits so splendidly with the rest of my possessions. It’s a living representation of who I gradually became, all through trial and error.