I’m snarled up in the middle of a book project this week, but in the course of going through some old papers I stumbled across this piece. It occurred to me that you might enjoy this story of the cartooning class, from my early days of teaching.
It originally appeared in a ‘zine called Caravan I worked on with our own Brandon Hanvey and some other CBR folks about a decade ago or so.
Every teacher — every human being, really — has blind spots, weird little pieces of emotional baggage that they’re not entirely rational about.
Mine is bullying. I hate bullies. Hate them.
The reason, of course, is that like many nerdy kids who are into comics, SF, and fantastic fiction, I was picked on a lot when I was little. I remember what it felt like to dread going to school every day, the furtive, fugitive life I led from the second grade until the sixth or thereabouts. Judging my every free moment at school by how risky it would be to go to this part of the playground, to eat at that table. A classroom was hostile territory; the playground and the cafeteria were minefields. The only place I felt truly safe at school was, of course, the library, so I fled there every chance I got — which in itself tended to exacerbate the problem everywhere else. Once these things start with kids, they have their own momentum, they feed on themselves.
When I began teaching my after-school class on cartooning and comics for sixth and seventh-graders, some thirty years later, I still remembered my own outcast status. And it has given me great pleasure over the years I’ve been teaching it to know that in my classroom at least, the little group of nerds and daydreamers that come together there to do their comics have a safe haven. In my room not only are they safe, they’re encouraged. They can let their inner cartoonist geek out to fly free and proud, twice a week, on school grounds. It’s what we’re there for.
What I was not ready for was the day they decided to turn on one of their own. Especially since it was coming from the girls, not the boys. When boys pick on each other, it’s fairly open, obvious, and easy to shut down. But girls can twist the knife in a million different ways and stay under an adult’s radar, and they never quit or get tired of the game.
Even worse, in this particular case, the person who started the rock rolling down the hill was me. It was an accident, I meant well, but it was still my stupid mistake that started the whole thing, and I occasionally wonder if I’d known, if I’d been a little more on my game, whether or not I might have been able to save Desiree weeks of torment.
“Is this the Cartooning class?”
I looked up from the pile of papers and administrative memos in front of me to see a black girl of about twelve standing nervously over me. She was a remarkably pretty girl, in a pink dress with ruffled sleeves, and she was clutching a battered binder and a Harry Potter book nervously to her chest. I smiled gently at her and said, “Yes, it is, or it will be in another ten minutes or so. Are you joining us?”
“I’m Desiree. I’m new.” She said it like a confession of guilt.
Oddly enough, I’d seen this reaction many times from new kids. They come in scared, not quite sure what it’s all about, not daring to hope that we’re really going to do comics. It passes after the first few minutes, usually. I put as much reassurance into my voice as I could summon, hoping to put her at ease. “Well, welcome aboard, Desiree. I’m Greg. I teach this class. Do you know what it is that we do here?”
“Well, it’s a little more than that, though we do draw. Here.” I pulled out one of our class anthology comic books from the month before. “What we do is we make these comics. I ask everybody for four pages. Then I put all the pages together and take them to a print shop and print comic books from them. We do one every six weeks or so. Look through this and you should get the idea.” I handed her the book and her eyes got wide.
“Kids did this?”
“Yes they did,” I told her, grinning. “And you can do it too.” The bell rang and the room started to fill up. “Have a seat and let me get the others started, then I’ll come back and get you set up, okay?”
Desiree nodded and plopped down at a seat in the front, directly across the table from where I was sitting, still staring in wonder at the comic book. I stepped to the front of the room and checked off names as they came in. Sebastian, stolidly driven as always, went straight to the cabinet where we kept our work in progress, pulled out his half-finished pages, and returned to his usual table, while Mike and Adam argued over a video game. Susan and Alison were talking about last night’s episode of Angel and what vampires could and couldn’t do, while Mary, trailing close behind, looked a bit vampirish herself with her black blouse, heavy mascara, and studded black collar. Natasha, chubby and surly, swaggered in with a bag of pretzels and Mike and Adam immediately dropped the video discussion and began hounding her to share.
“Just a work day, people,” I told them. “You know the drill. Natasha, Mike, Adam — you have until two-thirty to resolve your pretzel issues, we’re not wasting class time on it. You get a snack in an hour anyway, courtesy of the US government. Don’t they feed you kids at home?”
“We’re hungry NOW,” whined Mike. “And lunch SUCKED. “
“Can we go to the vending machines?” Adam wanted to know.
“Can you get back here by 2:30?” I glanced at the clock. It was 2:25. “All right, 2:35,” I added, relenting. “On the condition that we do not speak of food again today. I’m tired of you guys wasting the first half hour of class on snack negotiations; we’re on a deadline here. Okay?” They nodded and sprinted for the door.
And so on. The usual pre-class banter. During all of it, Desiree sat silently, still staring at the comic as if hypnotized. By 2:35, the group was back and settled at their tables, all pretzel questions resolved. As usual, the tables had split along gender lines, with Mike, Sebastian and Adam at one table, and Susan, Alison, Natasha and Mary at the other. Finally, I was able to turn my attention to our new recruit. I sat back down across the table from Desiree.
“Okay, Desiree. Here’s what you need to do. For today, since it’s your first day, I need a bio. If you look in the back of the book, you’ll see there’s a little page that talks about all the kids who did the stories in the book, each one with a little picture they drew of themselves. We’ll start with that. Here’s the sheet we use.” I gave her one of my biographical questionnaires. “Look that over. Make sense?” She nodded. “There’s a little space at the bottom there, inside that frame. That’s where you draw your picture and then trace it with ink. Let me know when you get to that part, don’t start tracing till you show it to me, because there’s some tricks to it. After that we’ll start you on a breakdown of your story, so be thinking about what you want to make a comic about. Bio and breakdowns, that should be a good first day. Okay?”
“I’ll show you. It’s like a rough draft. You’re starting late in the quarter so we’ll just do two pages, we won’t worry about four.”
“I can do four!”
I smiled. “Okay, then, four. But deadline day is in two weeks.”
She nodded again and bent over the sheet, face screwed up in concentration, and I returned to the pile of papers. It amazes me how much paper a school administration can generate. And I was just a part-timer. God knew what full-time teachers had to wade through.
About twenty minutes later, I was trying to fill out something called an administrative process feedback survey when Desiree mumbled some words I didn’t catch. “What? Did you have a question?”
Desiree hesitated, then blurted, “I said, sometimes I feel invisible.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Invisible how?”
“Nobody ever talks to me.”
I considered it. I hadn’t made a big deal out of introducing Desiree to the others because — well, honestly, I hadn’t thought of it. Most of my kids were only shy and isolated outside of class. This was their refuge. I’d just assumed Desiree would acclimate as the others had; their initial caution rarely lasted more than the first half-hour of the first day. “Well, I’m talking to you,” I said, lamely.
“You’re the teacher,” she said, dismissing it. Well, I’d already known it was an inadequate response.
“Uhm. Well, yeah.” I put the papers down and looked directly at her. “Here’s the thing, Desiree. To get friends you have to be friendly.” Desiree looked over at the girls’ table with equal parts longing and terror. They were still discussing Angel. I nodded. “Why not go say hello?”
“I can’t do that.” Desiree looked at me in complete horror.
“Sure you can. Why not? That’s how people get to be friends, they talk to each other. They had to be introduced at some point. It only seems big and scary because you’re working yourself up over it.” Desiree didn’t look convinced. I added, “Look, relax, okay? Those girls are cartoonists, not cheerleaders. All us daydreamers stick together, none of us are the popular kids. It’ll be fine. But you have to unclench, okay?”
Desiree thought about it a minute, then she gathered her things and marched over to the girls’ table. “Can I sit here?”
Mary and Alison looked up. Natasha stayed focused on her page. Susan glanced at them and then looked up at Desiree. “Sure, whatever.”
Desiree glanced at me, I nodded, and then she sat down. “I’m Desiree,” she blurted.
“Hi,” Alison said.
There was a moment, a brief hesitation where the other four girls looked at each other, then at Desiree, then shrugged and went back to work. Desiree smiled at them and said, “You like Harry Potter?”
“I like Harry Potter fine,” Susan said.
Desiree nodded and went back to the bio sheet.
Okay, so it hadn’t quite been as easy and lacking in awkwardness as I’d hoped. But, I thought, she’d done it. The hard part was over. It’d be fine. I returned to my survey, feeling a bit smug. Another feat of social engineering accomplished. Damn, I’m getting good at this gig.
That smug feeling lasted about three minutes, until Desiree stood up so suddenly that her chair fell over. “Don’t you call me that! My name is Desiree!”
There were titters from the others. “That’s enough!” I snapped, and strode over to the table. The girls looked up at me with angelic innocence while Desiree stood, panting. “What was that all about?”
“I was being friendly,” Desiree said, helplessly. “And they laughed.”
I could feel a slow rage rising. I remembered my own history, the kids who laughed, and I was furious at the idea that any of my students could be one. I glared at Susan and Alison and the others until their angelic who-me? smirks faded into a kind of sullen, defensive guilt.
“Desiree came over here to introduce herself and be friendly because I told her she could,” I snarled. “Is there some kind of rule here over who’s special enough to sit at this table? Some kind of coolness test? Because that crap isn’t allowed in here. Ever. Is that clear?”
“Is that CLEAR?” I roared, really angry now because it was going sour, I could feel it getting away from me. Desiree was going to be an object of derision from that point on no matter what. . . and it was my fault, my stupid up-with-people faith in the goodness of my students that had started it. “Desiree, you can sit wherever you please,” I said, still glaring at the others. “Pick up your chair and settle down. “
That bought me thirty seconds while Desiree set the chair upright and gathered her books and drawings. I didn’t know what else to do, though. I couldn’t order the girls to like Desiree. I was boiling with indecision and self-recrimination and the old anger with bullying was coloring every thought in a red mist.
Susan asked me, in the kind of superior, world-weary way that only an adolescent girl can muster, “Can we go back to work now?”
“Can you do it without being snotty and vicious?” I shot back, seething. “If you think you can manage to be civil, then yeah. Get back to work.” I glanced up and saw the boys watching this sideshow with avid interest. “All of you,” I added, glaring.
A heavy silence hung over the room. Desiree moved to a table that was away from the girls, away from me, away from everyone. The silence stayed for the rest of the afternoon, and I let it, because I couldn’t think of an alternative that wouldn’t make Desiree even more of a target than she already was.
I was still cursing myself as I walked up the steps to the Denny administrative office. Jennifer Thomson, the after-school activity coordinator, smiled brightly up at me. “How’d it go today?”
Jennifer looked a little taken aback, and I added, “Oh, I made a stupid mistake today. “
I told her the story. Jennifer shook her head. “Girls can be awful,” she said. “Much worse than boys. Desiree? I remember something about her…” She sorted through papers. “Oh yeah, she’s special-ed. One of Mrs. Snead’s kids. “
I stared. “You put a special-ed kid in my class and no one thought to let me know?” Special-ed. One of the real outcasts. Ostracized by everyone. Segregated from the rest of the students, they had their own part of the building and rode the short bus… the ‘loser cruiser,’ as we’d called it when I was that age. And I’d thrown her to the wolves. Introduce yourself, it’ll be fine.
“Didn’t I clip a note to your roll sheet? No, I guess I didn’t, here it is.” Now Jennifer looked abashed. “Well, what can we do? Should I pull her out of the class? I can, though…” She hesitated. “Mrs. Snead was really hoping this would work. She says Desiree loves to draw, it’s the only time she’s really happy in class.”
“Jen, they’ll eat her alive. Once these things get started…”
“I know.” Jennifer sighed. “I’ll talk to Mrs. Snead.”
“Thanks,” I said, and turned to go, then paused. “Have her call me or maybe we can meet when I’m back on Wednesday. We might be able to salvage this. Maybe tutoring or something, like with Leon last year.”
“I’ll do that.” Jennifer brightened.
Maybe it was just my damaged pride, but I decided I wasn’t going to give up yet.
The problem of Desiree ate at me all evening and all the next day. The trouble was that I was completely at a loss as to how I could have misjudged the others so badly, especially Alison and Susan. They’d always been good kids. Where was the viciousness coming from? Was it some kind of girl thing? The more I thought about it the angrier I got. So help me, I would throw out Alison and Susan before I let them chase off Desiree. If anyone deserved ejection, it was those little bitches. I would by God make an example of them, to all bullies, everywhere. I would… I would…
…I didn’t know what in the hell I was going to do, I admitted. The trouble was that I couldn’t just issue an edict and enforce it rigidly, polarizing my classroom into two armed camps. No, I had to undo the damage somehow. How I would do that… I had no idea.
The next day, at Madison, I floated the question as a hypothetical to a few of the girls there — same as at Denny, the kids were in groups at different tables, though at Madison, those groups tended to break along age lines instead of gender. I posed my question to the seventh-grade table, where Nadine, Emily, Brianna, Sarah, and Maia were all toiling away. They were a tight-knit little clique, bonded over their love of manga-style comics and cartoons, and often collaborated on their strips for the books we did. I decided they would be good ones to test my hypothetical on.
“If we got a new girl in class, and she wanted to sit here, would you let her?”
The girls looked up at me, a little puzzled. “Sure,” Sarah said. “I mean, if she could put up with us. “
“We’re kinda goofy,” Nadine blurted.
“Kinda freaky,” Brianna added.
“Kinda nutty,” Maia put in.
They started to giggle, and I couldn’t help smiling a little myself. “No, I’m serious,” I said, trying to get back on track. “A new girl, she’s really shy, okay? She’s scared to talk to people. Walks up here and asks to sit down. Awkward, like. Dorky. Would you let her? Without laughing at her?”
“She can’t be dorkier than me,” Brianna announced. “I am Queen Dork. “
“Are we getting a new girl?” Sarah asked. “Because we are the dork queens, she’d fit right in. “
“No, this was at Denny.” I sighed. “We had kind of a bad scene yesterday, and now I’m stuck.”
“What happened?” All the girls leaned forward now, interested.
I shrugged and told them. Why not? Maybe they had an idea or an insight. I sure didn’t. By now, at the next table, Jamie and Brandy were listening too, and I laid it out for all of them.
Brianna was outraged. “She should come over HERE! We would NEVER do that!” Nods all around from the others.
I considered it for a moment. That would be an elegant solution. After all, here was the groundwork I should have laid yesterday. If I’d led the Denny girls through it like this, there’d have been no problem. It was tempting, but I’d have to somehow get Desiree across west Seattle from Denny to Madison in the fifteen minutes between two-fifteen and two-thirty. The logistical hassles of buses and time… damn it, sometimes I really hated not having a car. “You all are very sweet,” I told them, smiling. “But that won’t work, there’s no bus that’ll get her from there to here. But I love it that you all made the offer.”
“What are you going to do then?” That was Jamie, ever practical.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
The next day, Wednesday, I was back at Denny again and I still didn’t know. I arrived a little early to find a perky blonde woman with horn-rimmed glasses waiting outside the classroom door. “I’m Mariette Snead,” she said. “Are you Greg?”
I admitted it. She went on, “I’m so grateful to you for taking Desiree on. She’s really wanted to do some kind of activity after school, and the other afterschool teachers all said they couldn’t–“
“Hold on,” I said. “Did Jennifer talk to you?”
“She said there was some trouble. I just–” Mariette spread her hands helplessly. “I just want this to work. Desiree’s a GOOD kid and she could really use a break. She needs to belong to something and I thought she could do this. She loves to draw. “
I thought about it. Mariette obviously was ready to go to the wall for Desiree and I sympathized — if she’d been my student I would have too. Then I realized that she already was my student. If Mariette could do it for a full day every day, while coping with all her other special-ed kids, then damn it, I could manage twice a week for ninety minutes. “Let’s give it another week or two,” I said, relenting. “We got off to a bad start yesterday, but I’m on top of it now. Maybe we can get things back on track. “
From Mariette’s reaction, you’d have thought I’d cured cancer. “Oh, thank you, thank you SO much,” she said. “If there’s anything I can do to help make this work, you just tell me. “
I nodded and she left just as the 2:15 bell rang. I went on in to my classroom, bracing myself, ready to pounce at the first sign of any repeat of Monday’s antics. The kids all filed in and settled into their usual routine. . . but no Desiree. Now, what the hell?
I shrugged, grateful for the reprieve. The truth was, I still didn’t know how to handle it if things went sour again. I went through roll and reiterated that our deadline was in two weeks, right before Thanksgiving vacation. Various assents came from around the room and that was that.
About twenty minutes later Desiree came skidding in. “I showed Missus Snead what we did,” she said, panting.
She looked very pleased and happy, and for a moment I thought she’d just shaken off the episode two days ago, until I heard whispers and giggles coming from the girls’ table. Desiree glared at them. “You just shut up!”
“I’ll look after the discipline, Desiree,” I said. Then it was my turn to glare at the girls’ table. They got the message and shut up.
Desiree found a table of her own and set to work. I led her through the process of doing thumbnail page breakdowns. It took my full attention; I was beginning to realize why Desiree had ended up in special-ed. She wasn’t stupid, but she was unfocused. It was hard to keep her mind on the page in front of her.
“I want to do Harry Potter,” she said.
“No, you should do something new. A woman named J. K. Rowling does Harry Potter. It belongs to her. You should do something of your own. “
“But I don’t know what to do!”
“It doesn’t have to be a made-up story,” I explained. “Lots of kids do something about their families, or mean teachers, or something like that. “
“I want to see the Harry Potter movie,” Desiree announced.
“Lots of kids do. . . but right now we’re doing this,” I said, patiently.
There were whispers from behind us. I whirled and glared at Susan, who flinched a little. “Yes? Question?”
“No, no questions here,” Susan said innocently, which made the others snicker. At that moment, I could have cheerfully throttled her. But Desiree was tugging anxiously at my sleeve.
“What about this? My sister Monet bugs me all the time. Can I do that?”
“Sure,” I said, then added, “but you can’t just say it. Show it. Draw your sister doing the things that bug you. “
Alison muttered something that sounded suspiciously like ‘runs in the family,’ but Desiree didn’t hear it, so I let it go.
The next four classes at Denny were the hardest I’d ever had in my teaching career. My attention was completely split. Whenever I tried to help Desiree, she was so demanding the other girls would whisper and giggle, and when I shifted my attention to them to try to teach the whole class instead of just tutoring Desiree, Desiree would lose interest and flounce around the room.
It was becoming painfully obvious it wasn’t going to work. The class was suffering. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, deadline day, was particularly ugly. Desiree was completely hyper and when Alison made a rude remark about it, Desiree hurled her books to the floor and screamed, “Shut up you BITCH!”
“Desiree!” I thundered. “Sit down and shut up!” I glanced at the clock; ten to four. “All right, that’s enough, you all can go early today. I’ve had about all the fun I can stand. –Desiree, you stay. “
The others filed out, giggling. Desiree glared sullenly up at me. “Am I in trouble?”
“Yes you are,” I said, curtly. “This is a classroom. You don’t ever talk to people like that in here. “
“I don’t care. When the girls are mean to you, I stop them. Isn’t that right?”
Desiree nodded, reluctantly.
“That’s my job. When you are mean to them, it’s my job to stop you. I don’t want anybody being mean to anybody.”
“They just always laugh,” Desiree muttered, helplessly. “It makes me so mad.”
That got to me. I pulled up a chair and sat down. “Desiree, I know. I can’t help that. I swear to you, I will stop as much of it as I can, I won’t let them be mean to you in this room. I promise. Do you believe me?”
“But you have to help me. There’s a saying, ‘living well is the best revenge.’ You know what that means?”
“It means if you live your life happy, mean people can’t hurt you, because you don’t care, life’s too good. And that really grinds down people who don’t like you, seeing you happy. Get it?”
“Yeah.” Desiree brightened a little. I wasn’t sure if it was because she understood or because she just liked the idea of Alison and Susan being ground down, but I pressed it anyway.
“So if you come here, do the work — and you’re doing really well, you’re good at this, Desiree — then there’s no reason for you to be angry. They can’t touch you. Don’t let them ruin this for you. You love to draw comics and you’re doing it well. That’s what you should be thinking about. “
“Okay,” Desiree said. “Can I go now?”
“Yes, we’re done. Have a good Thanksgiving.”
She scampered off and I sighed. The holiday weekend would be a welcome break. After that… I’d give it one more week. If things didn’t get better after that, well, I was just going to have to break the bad news to Mariette, that was all.
The holidays weren’t much of a break, mostly because I worried about my Denny class all weekend. It was good to see my family again, but I was distant and distracted. My mind kept wandering to the situation with Desiree. Finally, Mom asked flatly what was bothering me. It dawned on me that Mom had been a schoolteacher for many years before she took her corporate job. And she might have an idea.
“Girls are terrible, that way,” Mom said when I finished explaining. “For every time you catch them, there’s a dozen more you’ll miss. They’re good at keeping it quiet. “
“I know,” I flared. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t at you. But I’m just so frustrated. “
“Have you tried talking to the other girls?”
“Talked, threatened, punished. It just escalates things. “
Mom considered it. “Try this. Enlist them.”
“Enlist them? Those poisonous little bitches? How?”
“Make it a team effort,” Mom said. “Get them on your side, explain why it’s important for Desiree to stay in your class. That might work.”
“I think it’s gone too far for that now.” I sighed.
“Try it and see,” Mom said. She added, “I didn’t raise you boys to give up.”
Maybe just this once, I thought but didn’t say.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, Desiree was absent from class. I was guiltily relieved. For most of the day we were back to our old dynamic; without Desiree there to act as lightning rod, the kids reverted to their usual good-natured selves.
“The books are due back from the printers tomorrow, and I’ll have them here on Wednesday,” I said. “Okay? Any questions before we move on to the next issue?”
“What did Stupid Girl do for the book?” Mary asked.
My good mood was instantly washed away in a red wave of anger. “She did a hell of a lot more than any of you,” I snarled. “She did four pages and a cover in two weeks while the rest of you were giggling and screwing around for five. Don’t you dare refer to Desiree by that name in here again.” I said it in a hard, deadly tone that I normally would never use on a child, no matter what the provocation, but I was furious. Mary actually looked frightened. Good, I thought, darkly. You should be scared. This is what it feels like. “And none of you are good enough at this that you can’t use a little criticism. The next time I hear a crack like that about anybody in here I will subject that smartmouth’s work to a public critique of their OWN stuff, in front of the whole class, that will humiliate her so badly that she’ll never dare pick up a pencil again.”
Now all the girls looked scared. Even Sebastian and Adam looked a little nervous. Suddenly I realized, hey, these girls are your students too. They’re not stand-ins for the playground criminals of thirty years ago. Calm down.
What had Mom said? Enlist them.
“Look,” I said, in a calmer voice. “I know Desiree is high-maintenance. I know she can be irritating. But she’s here by request. Mrs. Snead over in special-ed asked me to let her in here. Special-ed kids don’t get to do a lot of stuff around here, you know. They don’t get to be in the band, or take drama, or play on many of the teams. They’re kind of in their own bubble. But this is something they can do. Desiree’s doing it. She’s doing it well. Let’s not poison it for her.”
Susan nodded, slowly, and Mary and Alison actually looked ashamed. I pressed the advantage. “I need your help on this,” I added. “I can’t build her up if you guys just tear her back down again. This is your chance to do a legitimate Good Deed, to really help make someone else’s life better in a serious way. And all you have to do is not pick on her. I’m not saying you have to be pals. Just be nice.” I grinned. “I know you can. I’ve seen it.”
That got a laugh. The whole atmosphere of the room changed in that moment: suddenly, that quickly, we were a team. Susan said, “Can we put it on the Good Deeds board in Mrs. Nelson’s room?”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” I said. “Though it probably qualifies, sometimes you just have to settle for the feeling you get when you do the right thing. It’s a good feeling, trust me.” I paused. “So, do we have a deal?”
There were various murmurs of assent. “Good,” I said. “Then let’s go to work.”
“And that was that. After that day, I never had any trouble over Desiree again,” I finished. “She’s doing great and so are the others. I’d like to take credit, but I can’t. It was Mom’s idea, she used to be a teacher.”
It was a few weeks later, over at Madison. The girls had asked me about what happened to the shy girl at Denny and peppered me with questions when I said we’d worked it out. One question had led to the next and I’d ended up telling them the whole story.
“Wow,” Brianna said. “You were really worried about her, weren’t you? Like she was one of your own kids. “
I chuckled. “You’re all my kids,” I told her.
Even the poisonous little bitchy ones.