Teenagers, Kick Our Butts

My mom is unbelievably badass. She has a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry and rides a big damn motorcycle. She’s politically active and involved in ecology and sustainable design. But none of that can hold a candle to what she does for a living: she teaches middle school. She doesn’t do this because she lost a bet, or as penance for a life of crime. She does it voluntarily. She’s that hardcore.
When I go to visit my parents, I inevitably end up spending time in my mom’s classroom. Usually, I bring her lunch at some point, and we hang out and talk. She teaches at a fairly small Montessori school, which many of her pupils have attended since they were two. I went there for second through fifth grade (there was no middle school back then). Most of the teachers have known me since I was a little kid, and I’ve known a lot of the students since they were toddlers. Some are younger siblings of the kids I went to school with. Some, I used to babysit. And now, they’re all hulking teenagers with attitudes. They talk about sex. It’s a bit disconcerting.
So, when Mom asked me to come talk to her students about making comics, I was torn between elation and horror. I love talking about comics, and I love the idea of corrupting a younger generation, but I am fucking terrified of adolescents. In my mind, eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are what you get when you cross the worst aspects of violent mobs and mass media. When I’m around middle-school students, I become an awkward twelve-year-old: the definition of uncool, the flat-chested, frizzy-haired kid who hides behind thick glasses and thicker books, who gets called ‘dyke’ and worse by her peers, who would flay her alive if they knew she still built spaceships out of chairs with her best friend. I start to stammer. I lose my carefully cultivated dry wit.
‘Okay,’ I said.
I spent a lot of time developing content for the presentation, but I spent even longer worrying about how I would come across. Middle school is a time when kids tend to embrace dictated roles—particularly in terms of gender—and actively reject anything that smells of otherness. Montessori kids are often more progressive than most, but they’re still adolescents, and they’re still intensely judgmental.
At the same time, I agonized over how much attention I should devote to social issues related to comics. Should I talk about Women in Refrigerators? Should I mention gender disparity? Should I try to make concessions to diversity at the risk of inaccurately presenting the pervasive homogeny I spend so much time railing against? Should I emphasize the female comics community, or would that further alienate the girls? My mom warned me that the collective attention span of her students was a little under forty-five minutes and asked me not to wear my ‘I am wearing little pants to hide my genitals’ CBLDF t-shirt. I began to worry about age-appropriate content and imagine angry letters from parents.
And then there was the presentation itself. I’ve taught classes and given lectures and workshops before: the critical difference is that they’ve all been to undergraduates, not middle-schoolers. Would they be interested? Did kids today even read comics at all? I panicked some more.
Finally, I showed up at her classroom armed with a box of books, thirty pages of official Dark Horse artboard, two sets of handouts, and my laptop. I had a PowerPoint presentation prepared that went through the definition of comics and the idea of comics as literature, a short history of the medium (especially in terms of social issues and censorship) and a step-by-step guide to the creation of a page. I figured that even if they hated it, they’d have a few cool souvenirs and maybe even learn something.
They were good during the presentation: participated when I asked questions and stayed pretty quiet otherwise. Afterwards, I split them into groups and set them free to make their own comics.
Mandy, the other teacher, pulled me aside. ‘That was incredible,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen them get so into a guest speaker!’ I spent the next few hours wandering through the classroom in a happy daze, answering questions and helping them make their comics (‘I don’t know if you can say ‘crap’ in your comic. You’ll have to ask your teacher.’). Seventh-graders thought I was cool! They thought comics were cool! And, most incredible, they thought the idea of comics as a medium for social commentary was awesome! They thought female superheroes and creators were awesome! They were incredibly excited when I taught them the word ‘metafiction’ and continued to try to slip it into conversations all afternoon!
These kids, these marvelous, strange creatures are growing into the next generation of fans. They’re reading good books—and they’re learning to look at comics and literature from new critical and creative angles. Yeah, they’re into silly teenager stuff, but they’re also into Maus and Hellboy and Little Lulu, and more important, they’re into their own ideas. They’re writing and drawing their own strips and finding their voices, and I suspect that they’ll be harder than most to silence.
And now, the moral of the story: these kids are coming of age at a tremendous turning point in the world of comics. They’re growing up in a world where comics are still deeply flawed, produced by an industry that’s overwhelmingly male-dominated and often hideously sexist if not outright misogynist. But at the same time, they’re growing up in a world that has Girl-Wonder, and Friends of Lulu, where the visible faces of comics—creators and fandom—are gradually growing to reflect more than one race and gender.
And that’s pretty damn cool.
‘I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn
But that’s not your fault, that’s just your turn.’
-Dar Williams, ‘Teenagers, Kick Our Butts’
March 12th, 2007
Categories: Uncategorized . Author: Rachel Edidin