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Saturday at Commencement

June’s always kind of a rough month in our household. It’s busy busy busy for the first couple of weeks, and then school’s out, classes are done, and I feel ridiculously bereft.

But some Junes are rougher than others.

See, I’ve been teaching cartooning and writing classes in west Seattle middle schools long enough that for the last few years we’ve been watching ‘our kids’ graduating not just from middle school, but also high school and even college. Most of them are girls. Both Cartooning and Young Authors have generally been an estrogen festival anyway, and it’s always the girls who keep writing and drawing, and they’re usually the ones who make it a point to keep in touch.

You can't tell by looking, but I assure you, there are a BUNCH of cartoonists in that procession.

And this June, a whole crowd of our girls are moving on.

Today Julie and I were sitting at Memorial Stadium watching the Chief Sealth High School class of 2012 get their diplomas. Except I wasn’t really there, a lot of the time. I kept having flashbacks. I kept seeing one or another of the girls and thinking of moments from years ago, or remembering something I wished I’d thought to tell them…. but mostly sitting there and thinking how much time has gone by, so QUICKLY.

Over the last twenty-four hours there have been all kinds of tweets and Facebook statuses and emails and so on. Thanks so much for everything. I don’t know what I’d have done without you and Julie. You guys are the coolest adults we know. Hearts and XOXO’s. Goodbyes.

And they should be saying goodbye. In a few minutes they’re going to be handed the piece of paper that declares them Official Adults. They’re moving on.

Milling around in the seats, right before the ceremony starts. On the far left you can see Tiffany and Aja; in the middle, the tall redhead with the glasses is Madeline; and on the far right you can see Rachel, with the long dark hair.

I know that all of them are tired of the constant parade of adults trying to tell them important things the last few weeks. I’d tried to explain it to Tiffany one day after class in Young Authors a few weeks ago, where she’d been TA’ing for me as part of her senior project requirements. (In my defense, she did ask me about advice for graduating seniors… she was trying to write a piece in order to audition for one of the student speaker slots at graduation.)

I have kids who draw and kids who write. Tiffany was a writer. Even when she was in Cartooning years ago, Tiffany was always about the words more than the pictures.

“Here’s the thing,” I told her. “We’re all so terrified for you because we remember what we did. I mean, there’s a reason I never talk about my family… or the schools I was thrown out of… or all the other bridges I burned. I graduated in 1979. The eighties– what I can remember of them, which isn’t much, because I was so addled on drugs and alcohol for the most part– were a train wreck for me. By rights I should be dead or in jail.”

Tiffany started to giggle.

“Seriously. I’m the worst possible role model. Don’t get thrown out of college and you’ll be doing better than me.” I grimaced. “But here’s the important part. Every adult you talk to is remembering their own list of really, really bad choices. Most of them don’t have mistakes as spectacularly stupid as mine… but they have them. All of us do. Mistakes. Regrets. Things we wish we could do over. And here you all are, about to take that same first step out into the world… and we can’t protect you. It makes us a little nuts. That’s why everyone is desperately trying to advise you. They want you to avoid the train wreck.” I took a breath. “So. Everyone else is going to take a shot at heading it off for you and here’s mine, so listen up.”

Tiffany laughed and nodded.

“From now on,” I told her, “your actions have consequences. Remember that. That’s what I never knew and it’s what screwed me up so bad. I used to think freedom meant not having responsibility… but real freedom is about taking responsibility. Own what you do. When you take responsibility for your own choices, you get a lot damn pickier about the choices. That’s helpful to remember.” I heard myself winding up into a lecture and stopped. “Anyway. My two cents. Let’s take a look at this draft you’ve got.”

Story continues below

Tiffany didn’t get a slot, despite polishing that speech till it shone. Julie and I watch the student speakers that did make the cut. One’s a self-congratulatory ode to the awesomeness of the class of 2012, one’s a spoken-word performance piece that makes Julie mutter, “That was– interesting,” and the last speaker is actually pretty good, about how the school helped turn her life around after she transferred there as a sophomore.

But my mind is drifting. I keep tuning out the people at the podium, faculty and students both. You’re a great bunch, you rose to all those challenges, more challenges are coming, we expect to see great things from you because greatness lives in each and every one of you, blah blah blah. It’s all familiar to anyone who’s been to more than one commencement, and Julie and I have been to many.

Instead, I keep looking out at the crowd and thinking about what the girls were like when they were with me in the classroom, and how they’ve turned out.

“There’s Madeline,” I told Julie. “She lost me a job once, you know.”

“I remember. You didn’t want to work there anyway.”

Madeline is so poised today... she used to be such a gawky awkward nerdgirl. But I'm betting she still can quote any Monty Python sketch ever done.

It’s true, I didn’t. It had been a private school in south Seattle that was thinking of starting a cartooning program as one of their after-school activity offerings, and they’d called me in for an interview. I’d brought some of the student ‘zines as samples.

I could tell the interview was going pear-shaped as soon as I showed the aging Iron Lady in charge the student books I’d brought, and she looked like she’d bitten into a lemon. It used to happen a lot in the early days. A great many faculty, especially administrative types, failed to make the connection between the word cartooning and the fact that we published actual comics. Most people assumed it was a drawing class in how to do caricature, if they gave it any thought at all.

It was okay, I was ready for that. I had a rap about reading and writing skills coming into play and how the class often became a stealth literacy program, and that combined with the sample books was usually enough to win people over.

Not this time. Not one word of my polished sales pitch seemed to penetrate her increasingly furrowed brow. I wound it up and smiled winningly. “So that’s really all there is to it…”

The woman tapped one of the zines. “I think we have a problem here.”

“Huh?” I was honestly baffled. This was a job interview and I’d frankly cherry-picked the samples I’d brought from years of teaching. These were some of our best, both old and new. “What problem?”

The woman flipped to Madeline’s story and pointed. “We have a strict zero tolerance policy here.”

“Uh?” I stared at the page. It was a fantasy quest story, another chapter in the epic Madeline had been working on all year. “You mean for fantasy?”

“For weapons.” The woman was glaring at me now. Clearly I was stupid as well as a heathen. When I just stared blankly, she pointed again. “The sword.”

“But…” I shook my head, still not getting it. Madeline wasn’t doing some gory Frazetta blood-drenched decapitation. It was just another shoujo manga thing. My brain was boiling with dozens of increasingly snappish replies raging to get out, but what I actually said was, “It’s a magic sword. It’s a drawing of a magic sword.”

“Zero tolerance means zero tolerance.”

I shook my head. “Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can comply with…” –SOMETHING AS BONEHEADEDLY REPRESSIVE AND MORONIC AS ‘ZERO TOLERANCE’ FOR MAGIC FUCKING SWORDS! “…uh, with a policy that….”

“I understand. Thank you for coming in.” She was already done.

So I left. Later that day in class I’d told the story and the kids were incredulous. I remember Madeline being even more shocked than I was and having to assure her that it was fine, I really didn’t want to work for a woman that stupid…

Story continues below

“Look, there’s Emily,” Julie is nudging me. “And Cooki.”

Emily was one of the shyest kids I'd ever had, but on paper she always had an antic sense of humor that delighted me.

Emily had been one of mine from Denny, and she had hung in there for all three years of middle school despite the cartooning program slowly imploding there, something that had become inevitable given the administrative turnover. (Emily and Aja were the main reasons I’d stayed at Denny that final year.)

Aja had gone on to be an academic star and kept up with her cartooning, as well. But Emily seemed to be having more trouble finding a niche and reading her various online postings over the years was often worrisome to us… Julie, especially. I teach the kids, but my bride just loves them, fiercely and unconditionally. (Once, years ago, a student told me earnestly that when Julie visited cartooning class it was like being in the sunshine.) But that also means that Julie worries over every one of the kids as though they were her own. Because really, to her they are.

Over the last few months Emily seemed to have sorted it out, though, and the thank-you note she’d sent this morning assured me that she’d be drawing for the rest of her life. That made me smile. Julie and I don’t really care if the kids keep up with the drawing. We just like to know they’re healthy and happy, and Emily sure sounds healthier and happier than she had a couple of years ago.

A lot of that, I suspected, came from her connecting with Danielle…. “Cooki” is what she goes by currently and I think it was even printed on her diploma, but Danielle is how I think of her, even today.

I remember once telling Danielle that her stuff was very stream-of-consciousness and she said, 'Naw, it's just RANDOM!'

Danielle could draw fairly well when she put her mind to it, but he real gift was making her friends laugh, which is certainly something Emily needed. I often thought Danielle’s aptitudes would have better served her in stand-up comedy, but there wasn’t an after-school program for that, so Cartooning is where she landed… and where she routinely brought the house down. We still laugh about the “Emo Lincoln” gag page she actually managed to sell at Emerald City a few years ago.

“Hey, there’s Mr. Townsend!” Julie’s pointing up into the stands. Sure enough, there’s Lew bounding over the bleachers, camera in hand. I can’t help grinning. No matter where they are, Lew is going to make damn sure his daughter is shining. Rachel’s dad was always one of our great class parents, very supportive, but every so often he’d have a moment of pure Dad terror.

Of all my students, I think Rachel is the most romantic. Not just about boys... about EVERYTHING. For her the world is a magical place, full of possibility. And, well, yes, boys. But she's not stupid about it.

I vividly remember one time he actually called me at work, shortly after Rachel had started high school. He was trying to find a way to say it diplomatically, but clearly there was a problem and clearly he felt that I was somehow making it worse. Finally he got it out. “It’s just… I think she may be taking this comics thing too seriously.”

Rachel does take it pretty damn seriously, as her self-published zines show.

I smothered a laugh, certain I knew what the problem was. Rachel is a terrible procrastinator, and easily distracted. What was probably going on was that she was blowing off whatever Important Thing Lew wanted her to do, and comics were her current method of not doing it. I did my best to talk him down, but when he was saying goodbye I inadvertently said something very cruel… “Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about it, Lew. Your real problem is going to be when she gets interested in boys. Now that’s a serious distraction.”

I honestly thought I was kidding but I had forgotten for a moment that all men, and especially all fathers, were once teenage boys themselves, and we remember what teenage boys are like and what they want from teenage girls. (Yes, ladies, even the nice ones. It’s just that nice boys feel too insecure and embarrassed to act on it, most of the time. But I assure you that they look at you THAT WAY as well. They can’t help it. It’s hard-wired.)

Anyway, my offhanded remark hit Lew like a punch in the gut. He whispered bleakly, “Yeah… I know….”

Story continues below

I felt terrible, but what could I say? We were both former teenage boys and we both knew it was true, and we both knew what a romantic mushball Rachel was. We said awkward goodbyes and hung up.

And for the next few years, if you’d asked me which of my former students would have been the one to call her family from a Vegas chapel at three in the morning, saying excitedly, Don’t be mad, but we just…. I’d have instantly replied, “Rachel.” No one else even in the running. If you’d asked Julie, or Katrina, or Rin… any of us would have given that answer.

But Rachel fooled us all. Oblivious to our off-and-on worrying, she just happily went on through high school, kept her head about her– well, for the important stuff, anyway– and even got all her responsibilities taken care of. At the last minute, like always.

Thinking about responsibility led me to think about Aja, who is Rachel’s polar opposite in that area. Aja is, if anything, compulsively responsible.

Of all the kids, I think Aja may have been the most purely grateful just to be DONE. She looked like she was about to collapse from sheer relief.

Aja’s been one of our convention helpers for years, a contributor to the alumni projects, and one of the most dependable kids I’ve ever met. And she swears up and down she’s having a great time, but it’s always bothered me that she tends to work harder than anyone else all day and then skip the fun reward part where we all go out to dinner afterward, usually because she is doing something for her family. I know she’s worked the hardest to make college happen at all, and I know the single most excited, joyous moment I’ve ever seen from Aja was when she was accepted into art school a few months ago. (Cornish College of the Arts, where Ellen Forney teaches.)

“I hope she’s doing something fun tonight,” I mutter, because I’m pretty sure Aja is too practical to spring for the frivolity (and expen$e) of tonight’s senior Kidnap Party. “Kid deserves a break. Tiffany too. They work too hard.”

Julie doesn’t hear me, because she is cheering for someone else. Unlike me, who’s been largely absent from the ceremony because I have been thinking and remembering, Julie is completely in the spirit of the moment. She is whooping and waving at the girls and applauding when each name is called. Right now she is applauding someone I don’t even remember having in class ever, and I ask who it is.

“I don’t know,” Julie says happily. “I just didn’t think anyone was clapping for him, and he deserves to be clapped for too.”

That’s the woman I married. Sunshine.

Then the principal is at the podium. He’s saying that at this point the school band was scheduled to play, but there have been “transportation issues.” So instead if the graduates would please stand and move the tassel from the right to the left… then cheers, a roar of applause, and someone way up in the bleachers behind us even has an air horn they’re giving a workout.

WOOHOO! Hats in the air!

…and that’s it. We’re out. Another June done. We don’t hang around for family gatherings or photos or anything like that– and anyway, they need the stadium cleared because there’s two other high school commencement ceremonies scheduled this afternoon.

Walking out to the car, Julie starts to giggle. “Transportation issues,” she says.

I knew instantly what she meant. “At least it wasn’t us this time.”

Any teacher, any TA, any parent volunteer… anyone who’s ever been within a hundred yards of any class trip in this town knows what “transportation issues” stands for. It’s code for “frigging Transportation Department,” the remarkably incompetent folks in charge of scheduling our school buses. You’d think– just once– the Seattle School District could get some cooperation with getting a group of kids on a goddamn bus.

On the other hand, it meant getting done early, and we were pretty much ready to go. Lord knows the kids were ready to go, whether we were or not.

But that’s June. The kids are always done before I’m quite ready to let them go.

I’ve just had to get used to it.

See you next week.


Sentimental sap that I am, Greg, this week’s column has got me a bit verklempt. I’m not sure what moves me more: the positive influence you and Julie have had on the kids or the love and loyalty they’ve given you in return. I wish every kid had a teacher like you in his/her life.

These pieces are an antidote to everything that’s wrong with the comics internet.

Got a lump in my throat a few times while reading this. You and Julie both have a right to be proud. And I really like the way you formulated the reason why people give advice – I’d never quite thought of it in that way, but it’s spot on (as is your actual advice).

Yup, that got me all sentimental on this Father’s Day. My son is entering high school this summer, so time for me to REALLY start to freak out. Thanks for the great piece, Greg.

Nice column.
Now you will have more time for some Bookscouting!

I, like you, graduated in ’79. Yeah, they 80’s were rough for me too. Many many bad decisions. I finally got my act together around 1990 and have been teaching high school math since then. I can truly relate to your post above. I try not to give unsolicited advice to my kids, but sometimes they ask. I tell them pretty much the same things you do. I love hearing back from my former students after they’ve graduated. The main reason I’m commenting, is to tell you that I agreed to sponsor a comics/manga club at my school beginning this fall. I’m a little nervous b/c most of the kids are more into manga, whereas I’m more into american comics.I agreed to do it b/c no one else would and these kids really want to keep the club going. I don’t feel up to the task, but I’m going to do it anyway. Anyway, I always enjoy your various posts. Keep ‘em coming.

nice article can see why you and Julie feel a little teary this time of june for those students were like your own kids and seeing them achieve a middle stone like graduation shows that you and julia supporting them proves that you helped produce well rounded talented adults.

The main reason I’m commenting, is to tell you that I agreed to sponsor a comics/manga club at my school beginning this fall. I’m a little nervous b/c most of the kids are more into manga, whereas I’m more into american comics.I agreed to do it b/c no one else would and these kids really want to keep the club going. I don’t feel up to the task, but I’m going to do it anyway. Anyway, I always enjoy your various posts. Keep ‘em coming.

Don, I’m sending you a little PDF packet I put together a couple of years ago for doing a cartooning class startup, kind of the FAQ summary for when people ask me how we got ours going. Hope it helps.

Now you will have more time for some Bookscouting!

There’s ALWAYS time for bookscouting! We did another coast trip that I haven’t written up yet, but it’s coming soon.

This computer screen got all blurry all of a sudden.

Wonderful piece.

Ellen Forney — is that the lady who did the “Night Tom Waits poured me a Bourbon on the Rocks” from one of the Dark Horse Presents 100 issues?

Zero tolerance for magic swords. Oy.

On the topic of advice, this past season of Mad Men had a bit (and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything) where Don is backstage at a concert, talking with a young girl who says she’d do anything to meet the band. Don asks what she thinks the guys in the band want from her, to which she replies something like “oh, your generation, you’re old now and don’t want us to have fun.” Don replies that no, we’re just worried about you. I thought that was the best summation of the generation gap I’d seen.

Lordy, it’s been 11 years since I graduated from college, so…oh, man, has it really been 15 years since I graduated high school?

And yes, that means I was born in ’79.

Ellen Forney — is that the lady who did the “Night Tom Waits poured me a Bourbon on the Rocks” from one of the Dark Horse Presents 100 issues?

Yes it is. Here’s some other work of hers.

If I’d been in that interview, I would have immediately countered

“So, you have a ban on Shakespeare, then? After all, most of his plays involve at least the wearing of weapons.” I would then go into how it would be impossible to teach history with a zero tolerance policy like that, and the arts would be severely compromised (no 1812 Overture for the band or music theory classes because of the cannon shots? No Wagner or most other operas from the fighting? geez…)

And, I’ve always wondered about the logic of school scheduling in the places where it starts in September and ends in June since most states have a 180 attendance-day school year.

Here in Kentucky, it starts in early to Mid August, and most high schools are out by mid-May, barring catastrophic snow (like in 77-78 where we had TWO days of school in January). 18 weeks of school before the holiday/New Year’s break, 18 weeks after (either in 6 or 9 week sections). It makes many of the national back to school or graduate sales kind of moot, as some systems are having their first 6-week report cards going out when the chain stores are advertising “stock up for the returning students”, and “grad gifts” when the grad’s been out of school so long that sending them a gift would make you look stupid. And, you get kids reading the newspaper comics asking “Why are Charlie Brown and all the other comics kids still in school when we got out a month ago?” (I remember asking that one myself…)

How do the school systems break down the year for September starts & June ends? 14/21? 12/24??? To me, it would seem to make the effect of severe snowfall (at least, worse than what the region is prepared for) in January-March have an even more catastrophic effect than it should.

If I’d been in that interview, I would have immediately countered

“So, you have a ban on Shakespeare, then? After all, most of his plays involve at least the wearing of weapons.” I would then go into how it would be impossible to teach history with a zero tolerance policy like that…

Of course all those arguments are valid. BUT—

–There’s a cost-benefit ratio involved. I could have spent forty minutes arguing her down using a lifetime’s worth of debate skills honed since I was in the tenth grade and MAYBE gotten her to concede that it was stupid; but it wouldn’t have made a dent in the policy itself, which is generally a document that is only revisited annually (if at all.)

Or I could have gone ahead and grabbed a quick sandwich before gonig to the actual class I had later that day, which is what I did. It struck me as a no-win argument anyway, and a no-win argument that also involved skipping lunch was more than I was prepared to bother with, especially if it meant accepting employment from an administration that I could tell would probably fight me on EVERYTHING. If I am going to embark on a righteous crusade, I usually reserve it for schools where I’m actually employed.

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