The Friday before school starts...

It's always last-minute. It's always right on the edge of not happening for us at all. But I just got final, FINAL confirmation yesterday morning -- Wednesday, September 13, that is, as I'm writing this -- that the proposed budget went through and the After-School Cartooning Class is a go.

Don't ask me why the process is always such a nightmare. It just is. Part of it has to do with me not being on staff at school, I suppose, so there is a great deal of paperwork involved in just persuading the school district that it has to be ME that teaches this class and not just some volunteer parent, because I have professional qualifications and expertise that are vital to the subject matter. (Never have I felt quite so... well, foolish isn't quite the right word, but there's something surreal about putting together a bundle of, among other things, APA-zine excerpts, articles I've written for CBR, magazine illustration tearsheets, and the page out of the Comic-Con Program Guide from San Diego with my Kid's Day class listed, as part of a teacher-resume/qualifications package for the Seattle School District.) But most of it... well, it's government civil service, that's all. How long do you stand in line when you need a city official to stamp a form for you?

Now, when I talk about this stuff I need to make it clear that it's never anyone in the actual school that causes this problem. The people on site, my real bosses, are fine and lovely people who often spend thankless 10 and 14-hour days dealing with this administrative crap during the rest of the school year so those of us actually in the classroom don't have to. My piddling little three weeks a year every fall is nothing compared to that. Daisy and Jennifer at Denny, and Nick and Katie at Madison, are exemplary.

When I grumble I mean THEIR bosses: The Administration. The District. The Folks Downtown. Their faceless masters, that I can't help picturing as operating out of some underground star chamber, maybe beneath Queen Anne Hill. It's their endless tinkering with this process and their insane rules changes from year to year that make this so ...I can't even think of an analogy. I guess it would be a bit like trying to get a PC to talk to a Mac in 1994, only amplified, like, a million times.

I should be fair and admit that it's not as hard as it used to be. We've been at this student comics 'zine thing for about ten years now, so we've got some pretty good word-of-mouth at this point. If you are doing good work with kids, parents notice.. Certainly they notice if you are getting a sudden zest and interest in school out of introverted, nerdy, unsocialized kids. And parents TALK to each other. Especially middle-school parents; they have to have something to talk about, there's a lot of time to chitchat at all those soccer games, after all.

Plus we have ten years' worth of student 'zines

as exhibit A, along with testimonials from all sorts of people in and out of the school system, and probably the most important thing of all at budget time, as insane as it seems: the momentum of tradition. We did it last year, so we're doing it this year. It's an institution now. We're not nearly as precariously perched as we were a decade ago.

But writing the proposal, doing the budget negotiation dance... it's still nerve-wracking. Invariably, every year, I spend at least one sleepless night during the first week of September (because we're still waiting for the school district to get off the goddamn dime and confirm we're on again for another year) trying to come up with some kind of a contingency plan for us to keep publishing the comics and working the Emerald City convention even if the money doesn't come through. Invariably, every year, I can't come up with a realistic alternate funding idea (I've gone after a number of grants for this program over the years and never rung the bell on any of them) ...and then -- so far, anyway -- invariably, every year the district finally comes through, and even bumps up our budget a little bit. This year we have added an extra day of class, meaning we meet two days a week at each school instead of just one, and kicked up the publishing budget a few bucks.

The Emerald City Convention's still included, though we'll be at a table in Artist's Alley this year, I think, not a booth. And the beachfront art studio, where this all originated, has expressed an interest in getting in on the convention action too.

Once the budget proposal's gone through and we're definitely on the schedule, the other half of my annual early-September panic sets in: getting ready for class. That means figuring out what room we're in, making sure the supplies are there (I take care of this myself -- bitter experience has shown me that you never, EVER depend on the school to furnish you ANYTHING) which can be an exciting adventure in itself if money happens to be tight that week. (I get reimbursed, usually, but this is a glacially slow process.) Getting in touch with the administrative folks at the different schools who are going to be my liaisons, making sure my credentials -- background checks, first aid, CPR, basic stuff like that -- are all updated and on record. And so on.

When that's all done, I take a look at the lesson plans again, figuring out what worked, what didn't, what I can add, what can go overboard. When Brandon and Rin came to see us that was HUGE, the girls loved that... can we do more? Guest speakers? Can we get Rebecca and Pete up this year finally? That would rule. I can figure out a way to get them gas money and dinner at least... they'd need a place to stay, there's gotta be a way to hide that in a voucher... I hope they remember us talking about this, it's been two or three years, maybe they're too busy? Still we should try and get more industry people to come in. THIS YEAR I am going to MAKE IT HAPPEN DAMMIT... maybe Roberta? I wonder if she'd visit... Need to buy more pens, get down to Staples, or does Costco have pens? Got to figure out a way to make it more manga-friendly. Goddammit, THIS YEAR I am really going to buckle down and get current on manga, I GOTTA read that Ranma thing the girls are all so high on. Who's local that knows about that stuff? Whatever happened to that outfit up in Bothell that was doing all the manga-style books? Are they still around? What does the school library have? Would they order some stuff? They got a DVD player, finally, so maybe I can bring in some documentary things... there's that CrossGen promo video, and I think I saw something on the shelf at Zanadu... Countdown to Wednesday? Shit, the school won't pay that, 20 bucks? Forget it, there's no way I'm getting that kind of money for one DVD... gotta get down to the paper place, get some of that discontinued Bristol stock... Cartoonists Northwest, don't forget, you told Luke you'd check it out, THIS YEAR FOR SURE we are going to get plugged into that...

And so on. A lot of muttering. I say THIS YEAR FOR SURE a lot.

What kind of kids come to this class? More girls than boys, almost certainly. (If Marvel or DC ever actually found a way to tap the seething supernova of comics consumerism that is the 7th-grade girl... well, there'd be no more worrying about how to "save comics." But the girls are all about the shoujo manga, and occasionally an Archie digest. What we call the 'mainstream' is completely unknown to them.) Probably it'll be a pretty even mix of new kids and old hands. I imagine Rachel, with one ever-practical eye on the bottom line, will be back.

Desiree, the soft-spoken production machine. Katrina, the diva of middle-school manga nerds. Aja, and Emily. Probably Kelsey. Maybe Dana. The ones that made it a point to stay in touch, who found excuses to visit the studio during the summer, who took me aside at the Art Fair asking anxiously if Cartooning would be back in the fall. Beyond that... no idea. Every year is different.

First day's Monday. Today, I'm as ready as I'm going to get, everything's done, supplies on hand, paperwork filed, budget okayed, credentials updated, room reserved, READY.

And I say this knowing that probably during the first week I am going to have to rewrite my whole plan for the semester, the roster's going to reshuffle itself three or four times in the next three weeks, the room assignments might change, the accounting-voucher-paperwork system currently in place will almost certainly change... and at least half of this seemingly-endless prep work will have been for nothing.

I don't care. Bring it on. I can't wait. I love this job. We're going to have a great year.

See you next week.

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