So this week I did something not just stupid, but spectacularly stupid.
I agreed to help move a printshop the same week I was taking students to Comixtravaganza.
For those of you that may not understand why that was dumb, I’ll simply say that moving a business that largely runs on heavy machinery requires a lot of energy. Organizing a weekend field trip requires enormous amounts of energy. I’m a middle-aged man that walks with a cane, and my energy reserves are… ah… let’s be generous and say they’re somewhat limited.
Bottom line? I’m barely able to move, my aches have aches… and I’ve got to get up and start getting ready to shuttle kids downtown for today’s shindig with Peter Bagge at the downtown library. There hasn’t been time to sit down and write any kind of column at all, let alone the energy to do it right.
So instead this week you get a look at an excerpt from the book project I’ve been picking away at for a while, a collection of stories I’ve accumulated from the last fifteen years of teaching cartooning and comics classes in public school. Parts of it are a little out of date (for example, people aren’t quite as quick to blame teachers today for the state our schools are in as they were nine years ago, though that’s still in the top five answers.)
I hope you enjoy it, and the book should be ready to go later this year. Probably some time this summer — summer break is traditionally when we public-school types get a chance to do side projects.
Anyway, here it is. This is from the chapter “Lost Boys.”
The most common answer you hear from people, when you ask what’s wrong with public schools today, is this: “Teachers aren’t involved enough.”
Sorry, that’s crap. Sure, there are a few teachers out there that are just phoning it in, punching a clock but they are the exception and they generally don’t stay in the profession for more than a year or two – the money’s not there. It doesn’t pay enough for people to hang in there with a job they hate. Those teachers who stay in the public school system year after year are doing it out of love, because God knows you can’t get rich doing it.
We are, all of us that teach in the public school system, ridiculously OVER-involved, if anything. We put in countless hours of extra time, both paid and unpaid; we often will buy things for our classes out-of-pocket because we don’t have the budget to get them officially; and – this is the worst – we take every kid’s success or failure personally.
What kids never realize is that the teacher is rooting desperately for every one of them to make it, to learn, to get better. When kids actually do this it’s the greatest rush of triumph there is, there’s nothing to compare to it; but sadly, the flip side of that is that there’s nothing quite so bleak as the feeling you get when they fail. You always wonder, no matter where the fault lies, if you couldn’t have done something a little different, found a little extra time, followed through more somehow.
The problem is never about needing to be more involved. The biggest challenge in teaching is learning to let go. You have to, just to stay sane. Most of these kids have parents, and parenting is their job, not yours.
But it’s hard to remember that, even with the good kids – and the failures still hurt like nothing else in the world.
My first day with Leon was getting off to a rocky start. Mike Moore and I had kidded around about whether or not I was going to need a whip and a chair for these tutorials, but I was starting to wish I really did have them.
After much haggling and negotiating with various school authorities, and some behind-the scenes maneuvering by Mike and P.J. Neithercott, Leon’s art teacher, we had managed to get a room reserved for these tutorial sessions. But even with those two on my side there had been endless obstacles to overcome just to get the room space and get me authorized to be on school grounds during the day. I’d finally had to have my original application forms faxed over from the community center just to prove that I’d never done time for child molesting, even though I’d been working in the schools for the last six years. And the room space had been an even bigger battle – no one wanted Leon in their room, and at the same time Leon’s history was apparently such that Mike had told me, in clipped tones, that it was best if we work in a semi-public place “where there are witnesses, if you need any.”
“Why would I need witnesses to anything?” I’d asked him, honestly shocked.
“Because of what happened before,” Mike said curtly. “I don’t really want to go into it, I don’t have all the details. There have been issues about…inappropriate touching.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Now I was annoyed. “Do I LOOK like an adolescent male’s object of desire?”
Mike let out a bleak laugh, but stood firm. “It’s a liability issue. If we want to make this work we have to jump through the hoops.”
“It’s no wonder this kid is falling between the cracks,” I said, fuming, but I knew what he meant. The protections were in place as much for my benefit as Leon’s, after all. But it was still graveling. I’d been vetted and checked out a dozen different ways over the years, it was part of the job, but it never failed to get on my nerves… and I was getting really tired of the Not-In-My-Backyard mindset of the other teachers and staff when it came to getting some kind of room assignment for Leon’s sessions. If I was willing to do the hard part of the actual tutorial, they could at least meet me partway and grant us a room to do it in.
We’d managed it, after a lot of persuasion from Mike and myself. The head librarian had grudgingly assented to let us use a study room off the main library. With its glass-fronted wall facing the main stacks, we would have lots of visibility, and at the same time a little privacy to maybe get some work done in peace.
Always assuming that we were going to get any work done, which was looking less and less likely.
“Leon, come back here and SIT DOWN, please.” Getting him just to sit still was the hardest part. I was rapidly becoming aware that I only had his attention for about ten seconds out of every minute.
“Librarian said we could open a window,” Leon replied cheerfully, and clambered up atop a bookcase to fumble with the window latch. I strode over and flipped the latch myself and shoved the transom open about four inches.
“Okay, it’s open,” I said. “Now come and sit down. We only have about twenty minutes. You’re wasting it.”
Leon happily bounced down from the bookshelf and plopped into his seat. “Okay, whatta we gone draw now?”
“First let me see the model sheet you did for me.” He obediently whipped it out of his binder and showed it to me. It was a generic human figure, nothing distinguishing it at all. Not a bad sketch, but that’s all it was. “So who’s this guy?”
“Just a guy.” Leon was losing interest again. He glanced out through the window into the main library and saw a girl walking toward the checkout desk. “Hey! It’s Chelsea! I gotta go say–”
“No, you DON’T.” I put a firm edge into it. “Time for that after school. Leon, This is a class, okay, you get graded on it. This is part of your grade from Ms. Neithercott. Now pay attention.”
Leon slouched into his seat, sullen. “I thought we was going to do comics.”
“We are,” I said, more gently. “But we’re going to do them right, okay? You’ve just been goofing around with them and that was good enough to get Mr. Moore to notice. Think how good you’re going to look by the time we’re done here. But there’s a process to doing it, okay? That’s my job, to show you that.”
“But I already got comics I do,” He pulled another page out of the binder, about half covered with a crude panel breakdown.
I eyed it critically. “Not bad, but you can do better. You don’t move your arm when you draw, do you?”
“It shows, that’s what gives it that scratchy, wobbly look. Learn to lock your wrist and move the whole ARM, and it’ll look a lot better, you’ll have more control. Here.” I fished out a blank sheet of white cared from my bag and flipped it on to the table. “Do a rough of the same page on this sheet while I watch.”
Leon seized the sheet and eagerly began to start penciling. “No,” I said almost immediately. “The ARM moves, not the wrist. Try it.” I clamped a hand over his wrist and held it still.
Leon growled but tried it, and I let go. The stokes grew bolder and faster. “Hey, you’re right,” He said, after a minute, wonder-struck. “It does look better.”
“Sure I’m right. I do this for a living, Leon.” I sat back and watched as he sketched out a page rough. He had just reached the bottom of the sheet when the bell rang. “Okay, let’s have it,” I told him. “I need this one and the first one you did, so I have something to show Ms. Neithercott.”
He pushed both sheets over to me and said, out of nowhere. “Hey, could you talk to my dad? Come visit me at ma house?”
“Not tonight,” I said. “ I still have my afternoon class to teach.” Leon looked so horribly disappointed that I relented. “Maybe over the weekend or something. Have your dad give me a call if he wants to meet with me.” I scribbled my home number on the back of an old receipt I had in my wallet and gave it to him. “Now scoot or you’ll miss your bus.”
Leon scooted and I took a moment to examine what he’d done. The difference between the page he’d already done and the new one was like night and day. The first one was a muddy mess, but the second was clear and simple, done in a much more cartoony style, easy to read and follow. But the content was disturbing.
The first panel showed a man and woman facing off, glaring at each other. Your hitting our daughter to hard, the woman said.
In the second panel she slapped him, saying know what?
Ouch, the man said in reply.
In the third panel the woman said, Fine, I’m leaving. The man said, Your just going to leave me.
In the fourth, the man was standing alone. Please don’t leave, he said.
In the fifth and final panel there was a close-up of a man scowling, saying Fine, I’m tired of you anyways. A thought balloon coming from his head showed a little graphic of a broken heart.
What the hell is this coming from? I wondered. But I had an ugly hunch it was autobiographical, and wondered if there was a way for me to find out without it blowing up in the school’s face – or mine.
Leon wasn’t my only problem child this quarter. Over at Madison I’d been worrying about a kid named Dillard.
The problem was, I couldn’t seem to find a starting place for working with him. Dillard was surly and uncommunicative and he couldn’t draw; in fact as far as I could see from the little he did produce, he could barely read and write. It was a mystery to me why he had signed up for my class at all, he so obviously hated everything we were doing.
His lack of talent wasn’t necessarily a liability – I always have a couple of kids who are in it just for fun, either because of the novelty of a class about comics or because they want to hang out with their buddies who are in class as well, and even they generally can manage to learn something and become pretty fair cartoonists – but that wasn’t the case with Dillard. He seemed to have a zero interest in cartooning, and as for hanging out with friends, well, he didn’t have any. As far as I could tell he hated all the other kids and they hated him back. He would show up and hunker silently down in a back corner of the room, smoldering with resentment at being there. All I could figure was that someone – probably his parents – had ordered him to sign up.
Still they pay me to work with all the kids, not just the easy ones. So every day at Madison I made it a point to spend a few minutes with Dillard and try to guide him towards producing something, ANYTHING, just so he wasn’t sitting like a lump for two hours. He seemed to respond to the attention, but the second I turned my back or moved on to the next student, he withdrew into himself again, content just to hide out. It was frustrating. After all, I reasoned, the kid keeps coming, he must want to do this, so I ought to be able to teach him, damn it. Truthfully, I wasn’t holding out much hope after a month of giving it my best effort and getting the same surly, indifferent response to everything I tried. But if somebody gave up it wasn’t going to be me.
Then I didn’t see him for a couple of weeks, and I figured he had, indeed, given up – just dropped out or switched to something else that was more to his liking. But today he was back. Once I had roll taken and everyone else started on their pages, I beckoned him up to the front of the room. “So where’ve you been, Dillard? We missed you the last couple of weeks.”
“I forgot I’m s’posed t’be here,” Dillard mumbled.
“Uh-huh.” There wasn’t a lot I could say to that – my classes are not required, after all – so I let it go. “Well, it puts you way behind. What I’ve got everybody doing is illustrating the scripts you all turned in last month, you know, I took them home and typed them up and switched them around, so you all had a chance to try interpreting someone else’s story… remember?” Dillard nodded. I went on, “I had one set aside for you but since you’ve been gone, I don’t know if you’re going to have time to get through it. Do you want to try? Or should we do something else?”
“I’ll try it.” Dillard shrugged. Whatever.
I scanned through the scripts I had in my folder, trying to find one that would match Dillard’s limited abilities. I found one that looked like it might serve, a tale of a giant carnivorous bunny that ravaged a small town, and handed it to him. “Okay. Here you go. Your job is to take what’s on this sheet, this little outline here, and translate it into comic strip form. Think you can do that?”
“Uh-huh.” Dillard took it and went back to his table. There were some muttering and a brief bleat of laughter as he passed Corey and Alfredo, and I glanced up sharply. Corey immediately bent back to his pages, and Alfredo tried to look innocent. I glared at him, and he flushed guiltily and turned to his drawing. Satisfied, I stood and went to see how some of the other students were progressing.
It was a restless day. There was an undercurrent of tension and unease in the room, and it bothered me. Even my normally good kids were having an off day, and I found myself having to give a lot of pep talks and encouragement. As I was explaining a layout problem to Brianna, a scuffle erupted at the opposite end of the room, and I saw Dillard stand up so suddenly that his chair fell over.
“HEY!” I snapped, with the whipcrack-edge in my voice that Ronnie Edigio had taught me how to use a couple of years back.
Dillard froze. Corey whirled and said plaintively, “Mister Greg, he’s trash-talkin’ us.”
I fixed them both with a glare. “I don’t care.” Corey started to protest and I held up a hand. “I don’t CARE, Corey. It doesn’t matter who started it. I’m finishing it.”
Dillard blurted, “Make’m stop buggin’ me.”
“Glad to,” I said, curtly. “Dillard, pack up your stuff and move over there.” I pointed to a table at the opposite corner of the room. “Sit with your back to them. That way they can’t possibly bother you.” Dillard silently picked up his book bag and shuffled over there, glaring balefully at Corey as he did it.
Corey flashed him an angry glare of his own, then turned that same glare on me. I scowled right back at him.”Corey, you know what a restraining order is?”
“Huh? Uh, sort of,” Corey replied, puzzled.
“Well, that’s what you have now with Dillard. Understand? He is not to speak to you or look at you and you are to ignore him, as well. I don’t CARE what the problem is with you two, while you’re in here it’s on hold. Do you understand?”
Corey nodded, looking hurt.
“Okay, then.” I sighed. “Now, do you think that maybe you could concentrate on the pages I asked you to do? Actually draw something? Just for the sheer novelty of it?”
That got a reluctant smile out of Corey, and he nodded. “I guess,” he admitted.
“All right.” Well, that’s half the battle anyway, I thought and strode over to where I had banished Dillard. He sat staring sullenly at the wall, and I saw that his paper was completely blank, he hadn’t drawn a thing all period long.
“Dillard?” I tapped the blank sheet. “Why haven’t you done anything here? Too busy worrying about Corey?”
Dillard shrugged. “Dunno. I can’t think of anything t’draw.”
“What’s to think of? It’s all written down for you. That’s why I gave you the script,” I said gently, controlling the urge to grab him by the shoulders and scream in his face: GODDAMMIT, KID, WORK WITH ME HERE! “All you have to do is draw what’s written on the paper, here.”
“I can’t draw nothin’,” Dillard gave his shoulders an angry shake, almost like a wet dog would.
The hell of it was, he was right, I reflected. It wasn’t as though the kid had any discernible talent. If somebody put me in a room full of orchestra musicians and ordered me to play the violin, I’d probably be paralyzed too, even if they did helpfully provide me with sheet music.
Time to try something different, I decided. “Well, then, Dillard, what do you come here for? I mean, it IS a drawing class.”
“I want to draw,” Dillard mumbled, after a moment.
I sighed. “No, you don’t, Dillard. It’s like pulling teeth to get you to even TRY, every time you show up. What I can’t figure out is why you keep coming if you hate this so much.”
I glanced at the clock and saw that it was ten minutes to four. “Well, we’re about done for today, anyway,” I said. “Why don’t you pack it up and think about what I said. There’s other after-school things you can be doing, you don’t have to force yourself to do this.”
Dillard nodded, but he looked disappointed and hurt somehow. I felt a twinge of guilt at that, but I honestly didn’t know what else to try. Realistically it was only barely possible that I could train Dillard to be some kind of a passable cartoonist — even if he had shown any inclination to make an effort– possible if, say, I wanted to make it my life’s work. And the ugly truth was, I didn’t have time. I had eighteen other kids in the room to worry about, I owed them some time too. I stood and clapped my hands. “Okay, people, let’s pack it up. Pages in the portfolios and the portfolios to me, you know the routine, let’s go.”
There was the usual end-of-class scurry and bustle, and I noted that odd tension in the room again as the kids got ready to go. “Okay, on your way,” I told them, and watched them go with a sense of mild relief.
The relief was short-lived. In less than thirty seconds I heard shouts in the hallway, and then little Anya came skidding back into the room. “Mister Greg! They’re fighting!”
I charged out into the hall. Corey and Dillard were wrestling on the linoleum floor, surrounded by shouting spectators. I waded into the melee and grabbed the two combatants by the back of their shirt collars and hauled them apart by by main force. Corey’s face was bright red and tear-streaked. “He was trying to CHOKE me,” he gasped in accusation, when I had them separated.
“Is that true, Dillard?” Dillard tried to twist out of my grip and I clamped down on his neck, hard. “Knock it off!” I snarled. “Corey! You go straight to the office NOW and you WAIT for me until I get there! If you aren’t there when I arrive it’s your ASS! Understand me?”
Corey nodded, still panting heavily, looking shaken and frightened and angry.
“The rest of you, beat it, show’s over. Dillard, you’re with me.” I marched him back into the classroom, my hand still firmly on his coat collar. Behind us the crowd of kids dispersed, muttering.
He twisted out of my grip as we entered the room and bolted for the the exit.
“Where are you going?” I demanded. “Get back here!”
Dillard slowed, but didn’t stop. “I ain’t staying.”
I was seething with frustration and impotent fury. “All right,” I said. “But if you keep going you can just go all the way off school grounds and never come back, so help me, I’ll have you expelled.”
I had no idea if I really had the power to do that – in fact, I was pretty sure I didn’t –but it worked. Dillard stopped and turned back. “You cain’t do that,” he said. “I dint do nothin’.”
“You skipped my class for the last two weeks, you refuse to do any work when you’re here, and you assaulted another student. I think that’s enough for a start. You want more, I can think up more. Now, are you going to tell me what this is all about, or are we going to go see Dr. Moreland?” I relented, a little. “Dillard, come on, I’m not your enemy. This is your chance to tell me your side of it.”
“They started it,” Dillard said, sullenly. “They always start stuff. I ain’t done nothin.”
“Start what, Dillard?”
He just shook his head.
“Dillard, you know if you let somebody make you that angry, they own you.”
“Ain’t nobody owns me.”
“No?” I raised an eyebrow. “Look at it this way. If you’d kept your hands to yourself Corey would be the one in trouble. Now you’re in a lot worse trouble than Corey would have been.” I leaned forward. “Dillard, I just don’t understand you, and that’s the truth. You hate the class. You hate drawing. You hate the other kids. What are we going to do with you?”
Dillard just stood, sullen and silent.
I tried one more time. “What do you think we should do?”
Another shake of the head.
I sighed. “All right, let’s go see Dr. Moreland..”
“Am I goan be expelled?”
“Probably not,” I admitted. “We’ll see what Dr. Moreland thinks. But I think it’s safe to say that your cartooning career is pretty well over.”
“Look, there’s something going ON with this kid, it’s not just schoolyard macho stuff,” I told Dr. Moreland an hour later. “It’s like he only comes to my class because he can hide out there.”
Dr. Moreland, as usual, looked as though he found any question of student problems to be a personal inconvenience. “We’ve had problems with Dillard before,” Moreland grunted. “Three-day suspension for the fight, and I’ll remove him from your class.”
“But that’s not the point,” I said. “Of course he should be out of the class, but…I don’t want to just give up on him, either.”
Moreland shrugged. “There isn’t anything else available for him. It’s the parents’ problem now,” he added at my expression. “We’ve had issues with Dillard for awhile now. They need to address that. I’ll talk to them.”
It was a dismissal. He turned and strode back into the office, leaving me standing in the hall.
I stood there for a moment, felling foolish. Dave West, the coordinator for the after-school program, came in from the front entrance where the buses had been loading and grinned at me. “Heard you had an exciting day.”
“Yeah.” I managed a wry grin. “Right out of WWF Smackdown. First time in seven years I’ve ever had to lay hands on a kid.” I shook my head. “What a mess.”
“Corey was mostly just scared,” Dave said, cheerfully. “I think you stopped it before anyone got seriously hurt.”
“Not Corey. Dillard.” I sighed. “I hate just giving up on the kid.”
Dave shrugged. “What are you gonna do? From what I understand you gave him every chance.”
“Yeah. Hell, you can’t fix everybody, right?”
“The amazing thing is that we ever fix anybody.” Dave clapped me on the shoulder. “Let it go. Go home, watch some TV, go to bed. Tomorrow’s another day.”
I nodded. Dave was right, of course. I had a whole new set of battles tomorrow. But as I shouldered my bag and headed for the bus stop, I couldn’t help wondering what it was about Dillard’s home that was so awful that he would attend a class he hated rather than go there.
And there you have it. Thanks for letting me ‘go reprint’ on you, after a fashion, and I’ll be back next week… I hope with photos and a full report on Comixtravaganza. See you then.
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