I didn’t want to leave everyone hanging after last week. Here’s how it shook out with the gang situation and the Cartooning class at Aki.
Monday we were supposed to be back at work. When I got there I found the kids were upbeat, happy to be back, and to be honest there was really no sense that there had been anything wrong at all the week before, other than grumbling over the publication of our first issue this year being pushed back because of it.
Teachers and administrative folks were more skittish. Even Laura, our middle-aged custodian, was bellowing at kids to wait inside for their parents to pick them up. “You kids don’t need to be out there on them streets tonight! Get back in here!”
As for me, I was relieved to be back, but still angry that our program had been held hostage to…what, exactly? I still wasn’t sure.
After class I went down to the admin office to find my boss, Nick, and make him give me the long version. “What the hell was that all about last week, Nick?”
“No choice,” Nick said. “SPD’s gang unit was down here closing all the schools and teen centers.”
“Over what? The news reports were so vague… what happened?”
Nick sighed. “Okay. The south end kids, Rainier, they hate the Central District kids. And vice versa. So last weekend, Halloween, a couple of the CD kids were in a neighborhood they shouldn’t have been in or something and they got shot. The one kid made it to the teen center and the other kid was dead. So that got the Central kids all riled up and the gang unit heard that there was going to be a retaliation, and it was going to be on Wednesday between three and five and it was going to be somewhere between Martin Luther King and Rainier and, like, north of Othello and south of Orcas. Which puts us right in the middle, like ground zero, right? So we got shut down.”
The detail astonished me. Nick was rattling all this off like it was common knowledge, in the casual conversational tone you’d use to say something like Well, you can go to the Safeway on Jefferson if you want, but the one on Admiral’s got the better deli. Just neighborhood factoids. “How do they know all this? It sounds like they have appointment books or something.”
“They have informants. Kids talk.” Nick shrugged.
“Huh.” I shook my head. Never in my life had I felt so… white. Suburban. Out of touch. I was a city kid, I’d lived in high-crime neighborhoods, but nothing like this.
Then another thought struck me. “Nick, what if my kids want to do something about it? Say something in print? Is that putting a target on their back?”
“No names,” Nick said instantly. “Not the gang kids, not their own. But otherwise… it’s their lives, it’s what they’re thinking about. I’d let ’em do it.”
I spent all the next day going back and forth over it in my head. Should we do something? Some sort of statement? On the one hand, it might be risky. On the other hand… we were the only student group at Aki with a genuine voice and a platform.
I knew the class was pissed off and I knew they’d want to do something. Certainly it was safer to find a way to keep it in the classroom. But I didn’t want to squelch them, either; I had taught them that print is power, that the whole point of what we were doing was to SAY something. Now they really had something to say and I didn’t want to be the one to tell them to shut up. It would undercut everything we were doing.
This was what they call a “teachable moment” in all those seminars they make us go to. Only, what was the part that was teachable? Should I encourage them to channel their anger into something positive or should I counsel them to keep their heads down, out of the line of fire? That was what I had to figure out.
Since Tuesday was a holiday, I had all day to think about it. What I finally decided was to let them decide. It’s their book, after all; I’m just the coach.
So at the beginning of class on Wednesday I sat them all down around the big art table and laid it all out for them, the south end versus Central and how the police had decided to shut us down. I was struck, again, by how little of this was news to them. Nick was right– this was their lives.
“So that’s the decision,” I said. “Do you guys want to put something in the comic about why we’re so late, or not? On the one hand, there’s a risk. On the other hand, the content of Sketch is always up to you.”
“We should totally do something,” Jada said instantly. “Those guys make me so mad. And the Stop Snitching guys too.” Muttered agreement and several nods around the table.
“But some of those guys go to school here,” Erick said. “They could get the comics in the Y office.”
“Those guys don’t read,” Lynn snorted.
“They would read this if it was about them.” Erick glared back.
“What about unsigned?” I asked him. “Or if I put my name on it and you guys left yours off.”
Erick gave me a look that was almost pitying. “They wouldn’t care about that, Mr. Hatcher. They would just get everybody that was in the class.”
Arguments broke out back and forth. I let them work it out. They were all agreed that they should do something but Erick and David were adamant that it shouldn’t be in the class comic.
Finally Carlos said, “What do you think, Mr. Hatcher?”
They all looked up at me.
“Honestly?” I smiled. “I’ve been trying to figure that out for a couple of days. I mean, I’m really angry about this too, maybe more even than you guys. But I don’t want any of you taking a stupid chance. I do know that there’s a whole tradition of cartoonists bringing about change by focusing people’s attention on stuff, by making fun of people with power. You guys have your own power, of being in print, and that is real power. But it doesn’t stop bullets.” I spread my hands. “I think you have the right to be heard, but we should find a way to be safe about it while we do it, a way to be anonymous. Hit and run.”
“Graffiti,” said Jada, and at the same time, Lynn said “Posters.”
Then it hit me. “We’ll do both, kind of,” I said. “It’s called guerilla art.”
We mapped it out and they went to work. I wish I could tell you more but I don’t want to take a chance of a Google search turning something up. Suffice it to say… we’re back in business. And that I’m very proud of the kids.
Now, by itself, that was the best birthday present I could have gotten. But it turned out, over at Madison the next day, my student Jessica had decided we were having a surprise party.
She actually smuggled this gigantic sheet cake in on the school bus that morning, along with paper plates and plastic forks and everything, and enlisted Ms. Baker, the regular art teacher, to hide it in her room.
I had already decided that Madison deserved a publication party day, because I felt guilty about being foul-tempered in class the week before. I’d flared up at some of the kids more than they deserved because I was so upset over the gang thing at Aki. So as a gesture of apology and atonement I’d brought in some movies I knew the class would enjoy, to give them a day off.
They’d been wanting to see Gotham Knight for a while.
The kids with cable had been kind of lording it over the kids who didn’t have it since Cartoon Network broadcast it a while back. So this got everyone caught up. The girls, in particular, were fascinated with the different art styles– Dasha and Caitlyn, especially, were going back and forth over which ones were right for Batman.
It was like watching a message board argument, reenacted live by twelve-year-old girls. No description of mine can really do that justice. It was hilarious.
Also, last year, I’d been persuaded to bring in Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, after telling them a little about how the cartoons of my era had been run off the air by interfering bluenose parent organizations.
So we finished up with a couple of those short cartoons. The kids find this show hysterical and their favorite thing is to chorus along with the cry of “Birrrrrrrd-MANNNNNN!” every time Keith Andes says it. Since he says it a lot, this can get noisy. In the middle of one of those choruses, Katie –my boss at Madison– walked in to talk to me about something and I really thought she was going to hurt herself laughing.
I’d brought Julie along and she took most of these pictures.
Here is Jessica threatening Carlos if he doesn’t back away from the cake. Fortunately, he listened.
As you can see, most of the kids kept working despite my giving them permission to goof off.
Anton’s new this year but he works like a demon.
Carlos, on the other hand, never needs permission to goof off. It’s encoded in his DNA or something.
Still, he works harder in here than almost any other class at school, and he proudly informed me that he was the one that helped Jessica plan the party. He even served cake.
Which is not to say that he wasn’t still rambunctious and pinballing around the room. I mean, he didn’t undergo a complete personality change or anything.
But as birthday celebrations go, it was a pretty good one. Certainly the kids put more into it than my blood relatives ever did. And what really warmed my heart was how they kept working.
I swear to God, I’m not running a sweatshop. It’s all them.
Every so often, teaching, I get irritated by administrative crap or frustrated by the limitations of what I can do. And then the kids show me that there really aren’t any limitations, there’s always a way out and around. I really do have the best damn job in the world.
As old as I’m getting… it keeps me young.
See you next week.
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