Not too long ago I had a week at school that was... I'm not sure what to call it. A limited success? A successful failure? I'm not sure. But it all worked out in the end, I guess.
I'll tell you about it and you can judge for yourselves. Here's what happened.
Last year, as I already documented in this space, the Seattle Public Library hosted the month-long festival Comixtravaganza. Well, they were getting ready to do it again: posters and ads were popping up all over Seattle, and e-mails and press releases were flying. Hayden Bass and Jennifer Bisson, who run the Teen Center at the downtown Seattle Library, had coordinated comics workshops, signings, and events at libraries throughout the city during January and the big finale was to be a day-long celebration at the downtown branch on Saturday, the 31st.
But this is a story about the part of it that didn't happen, on Friday, the 30th, and what that event eventually morphed into.
Hayden had e-mailed me and asked if I and my students would like to participate again, suggesting that we could have a table with "those awesome little comics" the class puts out, for the shindig on the 31st. Of course I said yes.
Hayden also wanted to put together a workshop for students with Castle Waiting's Linda Medley at the downtown library the day before, on Friday. and was wondering how many students I thought I could get down there for that.
I was dubious. The cartooning classes I teach in the middle schools have turned into something of a showpiece program over the last fifteen years, and both teachers and parents have long since dropped their initial skepticism and embraced the idea completely. But as beloved as we are by school administration officials, that doesn't necessarily mean I have clout. This would be a hard thing to sell to my bosses.
I translated Hayden's question into administrative-speak and counted up the steps involved.
A ten-thirty AM workshop downtown on a Friday -- a day we don't even have the regular cartooning classes, which only meet after school Monday through Thursday. Pulling kids out during the school day proper was going to involve layers of complexity I had never dared attempt before.
It would be a full-on field trip, complete with a bus and driver -- so we'd need to get the Transportation Department to sign off on that. Then we'd need parental permission slips, thirty in all -- there was also the question of getting the kids excused from class, so I'd have to sell it to two school principals, one at Aki and the other at Madison... and even if they said yes, they would almost certainly let the individual teachers whose classes would be affected call it on a case-by-case basis. So that was -- rough estimate -- something like seventy people that would have to say yes. And that was all after I sold the idea to my immediate supervisors at the YMCA After-School Program, Katie at Madison and Nick at Aki.
All right. Probably we wouldn't get a school bus and driver, knowing the ongoing battles Katie had with Transportation throughout the year. So any kids pulled out of class would need alternative transport. Parents? Some would play ball, especially the ones who'd seen their kids making such remarkable progress in school once they'd taken up Cartooning, and parents are usually willing to carpool and take four or five kids in a load. And maybe I could get the YMCA van with a driver. Most teachers would probably say okay. I was sure of Jennifer, the principal at Madison. The principal at Aki I didn't know, but Cartooning had a pretty good rep there. So let's say we could get fifty percent buy-in on all this.
This takes a long time to write out but I did all this math in my head almost instantly; it's something you learn after working in the schools for a while. I told Hayden, "Oh, we could get probably ten or twelve kids and maybe some parents," deliberately lowballing it. (I didn't want Hayden to burn down budget money on something I wasn't dead sure of. A workshop would be great but I valued Hayden and Jennifer's continued goodwill, too.)
She thought that was wonderful, and I embarked on the process of trying to sell it to Nick and Katie at school. I didn't get far, though. I was still at the "I need to talk to you when I'm there on Tuesday about a field trip idea" stage when Hayden e-mailed me back saying that she wasn't getting enough yes answers for it, and what did I think about trying to get Linda Medley out to Madison and just do the workshop at school?
I was thrilled. Look at the logistical problems I laid out above and you can see why; all sorts of those hurdles just disappear like a soap bubble if the event is at school. This was an extraordinarily gracious thing for Hayden to offer and I was effusively grateful. We talked about times a little bit and settled on Friday the 30th at 3 pm.
So when I went in to talk to Katie on Tuesday I had a whole different proposal to put on the table. I made sure I had my copy of the nice hardcover edition of Castle Waiting with me to use as a prop; I wanted the school to know that Ms. Medley was a class act.
Katie was very enthusiastic about the idea of a professional author and illustrator coming out to talk to the kids. So that part was handled. The event would happen, we were on the schedule. Katie would square it with the administration and find us a room we could commandeer for it.
So now I just had to figure out a way to get my other class at Aki across town to Madison on Friday the 30th. This is a much smaller group than the Madison class, just ten kids or so. I figured we'd just use the YMCA van. Nick at Aki agreed that he probably could make that happen and we were set.
Happy ending, right? Another feather in Cartooning's cap, an award-winning comics talent like Linda Medley coming to OUR school specifically to do a presentation for OUR kids.
You'd think so. But this is where Greg makes his fatal mistake. Actually two of them.
The first one I have no real excuse for. I am not a during-the-day schoolteacher, so I have not internalized the school district calendar the way a full-time staffer would. Still, that doesn't absolve me from taking the time to look at one for the week in question, so a few days later when Katie told me, "We have a problem," I had no clue what she meant.
"With the event on the 30th. No programs that week. It's between semesters."
"Huh? What do you mean no programs?" I was completely befuddled by this.
"We're off that week, it's the end of the semester."
"What? No school?"
"No, school is happening," Katie said, patiently. "But we're not."
Apparently, the AfterSchool Program suspended activities for a week at the end of the semester, on the theory that it would distract kids from their midterms and such. Not unreasonable... but the date couldn't be changed. Linda Medley was coming up for Comixtravaganza on the 31st and we were just a little side trip. It was the 30th or nothing.
Goddammit, I wasn't going to settle for nothing. "Can't we just do it anyway?"
"Yes," Katie assured me. "We'll find a way. This just means we won't have the activity buses, so we need to figure out a way to get kids home... some sort of carpool maybe? We'd need parental permissions. I was hoping you could coordinate that."
So I wrote up a letter and a permission slip and sent it home with the students. We got fourteen signed slips back at Madison over the next week and a half. Okay, fourteen wasn't thirty, but it wasn't bad.
Then the following week, on Wednesday the 21st, I checked in with Nick at Aki. The event was less than ten days away and I hadn't heard anything about the arrangements on his end. How were we doing on the van?
He looked pained. "I forgot about that. You know I put in a formal request, but I haven't heard back on it yet. Let me get back to you."
"You don't look very confident."
Nick sighed. "The thing is, the fact they insisted on the formal request makes me think we're not going to get it. Things are different over here. Over at West Seattle a van's never a problem."
"Then let's use West Seattle's van. Hell, I'll drive the damn van." I was determined. "I'll come by here and get the kids at two and have them back here at five-thirty."
Nick brightened for a moment, then his face fell. "Only YMCA-certified drivers can use the van. Insurance. So you need a driver too, and I don't think you'll get one."
"What if I get certified?" I said, rather desperately. "What does that take?"
"Hey, yeah." Nick brightened again. "It's not that hard. An afternoon would do it. You just drive around with Dan in the bus and he checks you out on everything. Dan the van man, they call him. You'd just need Katie to put in the paperwork."
So the following day at Madison I asked Katie to do that, and the day after she e-mailed me all the forms I needed to fill out. About ten pages' worth. That was late afternoon on Friday the 23rd. One week to go, and no way to get hold of Dan until Monday morning.
Here is where I made my second mistake.
I was so obsessed with the van and the transportation issue, I forgot to confirm the Aki end of things with the parents themselves. The kids all knew about it and they'd taken their permission slips dutifully home, but I should have known that just because a kid puts a slip of paper in a backpack, that in no way guarantees a parent will eventually see it. It takes prompting.
So yeah, at nine AM Monday morning I was on the van thing like white on rice. Dan and I played phone tag for a day and a half and finally were able to arrange a time. I got certified and the van request was put in and I was all set to go. On Wednesday, the 28th, with a full forty-eight hours to spare.
This part, I swear I am not making up. After waving goodbye to Dan the Van Man I pulled out my cell phone and called Katie at Madison to tell her she didn't need to bother with the paperwork on the van, I'd already done it through Dan after passing the certification. Katie wasn't there, but her assistant Rashida was.
"We just tried to call you at home!" Rashida said. "Katie was trying to get hold of you to let you know that you don't need to bother, Nick canceled. Aki's having some kind of big activity day and the kids can't come."
"You don't need to get certified, you don't need the van."
"But I am certified," I spluttered. "I'm standing here in the parking lot watching Dan drive off. It's done. We got the van reserved from one to six on Friday. I'm down here at the YMCA office, I just finished a shitload of paperwork. The whole thing's wired."
"Doesn't matter. Nick says they can't pull the kids." Rashida let out an embarrassed laugh. "Well, you might need a van another time.... I mean it's good you got the certification."
I had to laugh myself. What a screwed-up Chinese fire drill this turned out to be. "Oh well, I guess Madison is it then."
So just Madison, and maybe two-thirds of the class were squared away with permission slips. Still, fourteen kids was better than nothing.
Except we didn't get fourteen. We got... four.
Remember what I said about prompting? I was so focused on the Aki kids that I also forgot to confirm with Madison kids. I should have remembered from past experience with other field trips that no matter who's signed what, you still have to call the night before and remind them. After six years of putting together our trips to Emerald City Comic-Con, you'd think I'd have remembered that.
So when Jennifer arrived with Linda Medley for the big presentation on Friday, there were seven of us in the room. Me, my wife Julie, Lisa Baker (the art teacher whose room we were using) and four of my students. Carlos, Sydney, Mako, and Gus.
Carlos you may remember from last year. He was a Comixtravaganza vet and was very happy to be there. He likes Cartooning because it's the one place where he can excel.
As you can see, he's got a good grasp of the form, and though his draftsmanship is often lacking and he tends to rush, he understands how to use the page. More importantly, as he likes to say, "It shows my mom I'm not worthless."
Mako is new this year. He's very introverted and soft-spoken, but in his comics he lets his antic side come out.
For a beginner he is making real strides; he is already learning how to use point-of-view and vary his ink line.
Gus I don't have a sample for, he's still working on his autobio page for the convention book. But he is more of a writer. He likes doing stories about planes and soldiers and stuff that blows up, and is in the middle of doing a long involved war story that's a bit like Sgt. Rock with aliens for the regular class comic.
And Sydney is also new this year. She is one of my very few students that came to Cartooning through a teacher request. "I thought she'd be a good fit for you," Katie had told me. "Her mother wants her involved with something at school, she says Sydney is too isolated. The introverts always seem to do well with your class."
Once I'd met Sydney I understood that she wasn't the one with the problem; isolation suited her. She was so fiercely intelligent that most of her classmates bored her and school wasn't really giving her brain much of a workout, so she spent a lot of time reading and thinking. For some reason, at age twelve this is seen as a problem, and I never really understand why; I'd think most adults would approve of reading and thinking. Anyway, I average three or four kids like that a year and Katie was right; they generally are a good fit for Cartooning. Certainly, Sydney is.
I push her pretty hard and she really takes to it, she sees layout challenges as new possibilities. She started inking this page from the bottom up and I cautioned her that if she was going to establish that night sky, that meant this took place at night and the way she'd penciled it, when it was inked there would be an awful lot of black on the page. She suggested that maybe it was starting at sunset and got progressively darker. I loved that idea, and here it is.
Sydney is terribly shy as well, and meeting new people is hard for her. It's taken most of the school year for her to warm up to the idea of talking to me, and she never really talks to the other kids in class. So this was a big deal, her showing up for Linda's presentation.
When Linda and Jennifer arrived, they pooh-poohed my embarrassment about the low turnout, and after some difficulty in getting the projector set up, Ms. Medley was off and running.
And it was... extraordinary. We were so caught up in it that we forgot to take pictures. Julie got this one of Linda and the screen right at the beginning, and that was it.
What was it that had us all so enthralled? I don't know if I can really put across what it was like, but I'll try.
Linda Medley told us a story she called "The Greatest Superhero Team that Never Was."
It started out with her childhood, growing up poor with her brothers in a rural farmhouse east of the Cascades. Basically, she walked us through the process of how she and her younger brother had started out by chronicling the adventures of their own superteam, the "Death Defiers," on the backs of newspaper coupon inserts and other found paper when they were little kids, and how over the years they had refined that concept from kids' drawings to fanfic to fanzine work to professional portfolio samples for DC, and concluding with Linda assigning a Death Defiers revamp as a class project when she was teaching a university comics class in Georgia a few years ago.
The thing that made it so mesmerizing, not just for the kids but for Julie and me and even Lisa Baker, is that to a certain extent it was every artist's story. There was a universal quality to it: you start out doing silly shit as a kid and refining it and refining it and refining it until eventually you get good enough to do it for real. We all recognized ourselves in the story she was telling.
Most of us are embarrassed by that early stuff and don't hang on to it. But amazingly Linda Medley had kept every stage of hers and had samples to show us on the screen as she spoke. And even after turning pro, while she was doing Justice League Europe for DC and so on, she had still done some kind of Death Defiers fan-art piece for her brother for his Christmas card every year, on through the nineties. She had kept scans of her students' different takes on the idea as well, and finally had put the whole archive together in this DVD presentation we were seeing, as a gift for her brother.
I'm not doing it justice. It kills me that I didn't have the presence of mind to get more shots of the stuff to put here, but the truth of it is that we were enraptured ourselves. Even when I wasn't lost in Linda's story I was watching the kids, and they were just transported. Linda was drawing a direct line for them, tracing the arc from when she was doing kid stuff just like they were doing to the work she would do years later as a pro for DC and Fantagraphics, and the lesson was not lost on them.
We ran long and parents started to come in... Mako's dad, Carlos' mother, Gus' dad. They ended up staying and watching as well.
When Linda had finished, Carlos thrust our scrapbook at her and she did us a wonderful sketch, too.
Castle Waiting fans will recognize Rackham, of course, and I think the caption is self-explanatory. The kids all signed one of our books for Linda, too, which pleased her immensely.
Finally Mako, Gus and Carlos left with their respective parents, and Julie took Sydney out front to wait for her mother while we packed up the projector. I thanked Linda and Jennifer profusely and apologized again for the skimpy turnout, and they assured me again that it was no problem, it had been a lot of fun.
"Seriously, it meant a lot to those kids." I told Linda. "This is the one thing Carlos is good at, and to get that kind of validation from you in front of his mother... well, that's just priceless. And Sydney... my God, I think she said more today in front of you than everything I've heard from her since September combined."
"I noticed that," Jennifer said. "I mean, I noticed how she got up and moved closer while Linda was talking."
"You have no idea how much it meant that she did that, but I do, and I'm very grateful." I flushed a little; I could hear myself gushing. I finished, "I'm just sorry more of them weren't here."
"Next time," Linda said, smiling.
We said our goodbyes and that was that.
So, I consoled myself, it was only four kids. So what? At least... if it had to be only four, I think it was the right four.
I'm not going to do a big writeup about Saturday at the library. Suffice it to say it was a success and tabling at the show I gave away about a hundred and fifty books to interested passersby. I will, however, go ahead and put up the pictures Julie took while I was working the table.
Davey Oil's Make Your Own Comic workshop was packed; I'd call it the headline event, really, more even than what Linda Medley did.
People kept coming to the table asking where it was, long after it was over. Davey probably could have done three more workshops that day and filled every one.
Linda Medley did another presentation, of course, which according to Julie was much more about Castle Waiting and fairy tale mythology. It was very successful and from what I hear she was able to sell a few books after.
(Julie had tried to talk Linda into doing the Death Defiers again, and though I understand that the crowd wanted Castle Waiting, I have to agree with my wife that it was a shame more people didn't see what we saw.)
Finally there was Comics Live, which Julie said was sort of a multimedia live reading of local cartoonists' stuff.
That's Davey Oil again; he was part of it, and the group putting it on was, I think, known as Slide Rule Productions. Julie and our friend Carla were agreed that the showstopper was something called "Toast and Jam."
Out at the table, I was sharing the space with the Cartooning program from Cascade High School all the way up north in Everett. I'd been hearing about this crew and their teacher Sean Robinson, for a while now, but this was the first time we'd met.
That's Sean on the left; he looks like one of the students, almost, but then at my age everyone looks like a kid any more. I feel bad that I didn't get all the kids' names, but it was very hit and run; mostly it was me at the table while they were inside seeing the actual presentations.
This bothered Julie but I was okay with it. If I'd had my students there I'd have insisted they go inside too. In the horn-rimmed glasses up there is a kid named Kieran and he did stay at the table for a while, which is how I happen to know his name.
The Cascade comic is called Think Ink and I snagged a couple of copies for myself. It's a lot like the books we do in our classes, in terms of the anthology format.
A wide range of talent, though Kieran told me not everyone in the class actually makes it into the book. I'm not sure how I feel about that; I didn't get into enough detail with Kieran to make a qualified judgement, though, so I don't know if he meant that only the varsity squad got to actually publish or what.
But there's no denying they are doing nice work up there.
Presentation beats ours on a couple of levels too. I like the creator shots being in the front of the book instead of the rear like ours. I wish we could make that work for our books, but there's just too many to fit all our students on one page like this.
Anyway, that's about all I have. Except we did get this shot of the lovely Hayden Bass, who masterminds the whole thing.
I made it a point to thank her again, and asked her if she would make sure to thank Linda and Jennifer too. Hayden tried to brush it off as being no big deal, whereupon I scolded her and said it WAS a big deal and she should just smile and nod. So she did, blushing.
And that was this year's Comixtravaganza.
But it was the Friday before that was really special. I think I'm going to go ahead and call it a success. Four kids, at least two of whom probably found it to be life-changing, is still worth it, and the hell with all the administrative hassle. I'd do it all again.
I'm just grateful that the Seattle Library and Linda Medley thought it was worth it too. But, as Hayden says, "This is fun for us."
See you next week.