Comic Books Not Bombs
All of us have a photo of ourselves that’s hard to reconcile with who we are in the present. For me, it’s the one from high school where I’m wearing bowling shoes, tattered overalls, and a black-and-white checkered bandana. I can’t remember what I was thinking at the time. I looked like a circa-‘97 Pauly Shore after a Salvation Army shopping spree. When I show that photo to friends, they find it impossible to align with what I look like now. Imagine how Bill Ayers’ students feel when they see his mugshot.
As you might recall, Bill Ayers became the McCain campaign’s unlikely “October surprise” during the 2008 Presidential Election. The retired Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago was the guy Sarah Palin was referring to when she claimed our now-Pres “palled around with terrorists.” The truth is that Obama and Ayers hardly knew each other and that while not a “terrorist,” Ayers was a former member of The Weathermen, the left-wing group notorious during the late-‘60s and early-‘70s for bombings targeting the U.S. Capitol and The Pentagon, among other locations, as well as countless armed robberies. Taking their name from a line from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”), this militant faction of the Students for a Democratic Society sought nothing less than the end of the Vietnam War, the violent overthrow of capitalism, and the establishment of a more humane society. As if you needed another reminder of how narcissistic and irrelevant your life was.
Not wanting to lose touch with the values that animated much of his early life, but desiring more pragmatic results, Ayers went on to become a teacher, a writer, and a widely respected educational reformer, somehow managing to establish a new public identity. But all that was ignored when Ayers was cast as Obama’s Willie Horton. Not wanting to feed the media frenzy, Ayers stayed quiet during the election, but afterwards was steadfast in his refusal to recant his militant days with The Weathermen. He made clear that he regretted the carelessness, stupidity, and dogmatism that suffused much of his behavior, and wished that he and his comrades had been more thoughtful and flexible in their political activities. But the Oprah-style apology never came.
What did come was a volume on teaching in comic book form. Ayers probably could have exploited the moment with a tell-all memoir about his relationship with Obama and his brief moment as the Republican Party’s boogeyman, but instead chose a project which, while likely less financially lucrative, might generate more positive results. To be sure, To Teach: The Journey, In Comics (Teachers College Press) was born out of Ayers’ love of the comic book medium, but also his desire to capitalize on his newfound exposure and communicate the ways that teaching at its best can be both profoundly intellectual and ethical work.
The book was based on Ayers’ 1993 memoir, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, and is a collaboration with comic book artist Ryan Alexander-Tanner, who effectively helps Ayers transform the prose of a scholar into sequential narrative. It’s no easy task, as representing Ayers’ calls for curriculum changes and re-thinking of standardized testing require an altogether different artistic challenge than, say, representing Captain America doing battle with Red Skull. Alexander-Tanner appears as a character on-and-off within the narrative, at one point lightly teasing Ayers for pontificating about his educational theories, and at another, jocularly representing Ayers standing on a soapbox. Such flourishes call attention to the very process of mythmaking and underscore the book’s central theme of the disorienting, whirlwind journey that teaching can be. Ayers, as represented in the comic, is both humbled by the absurdity that is the contemporary educational system, yet unflinching in his vision of what needs to be done. It’s as if Art Spiegelman’s interlocutor found himself inside the world of Paulo Freire’sPedagogy of the Oppressed.
The book, ostensibly the story of a year inside a kindergarten classroom, and set against the backdrop of Ayers’ pedagogical philosophy, is a fascinating read given Ayers’ larger political narrative and recent cultural moment. It’s virtually impossible, for instance, not to feel twinges of irony juxtaposing a man who helped organize the bombing of police stations with one organizing learning games with “Bingo the Turtle,” or witnessing a man who spent much of his early adulthood being spied on by the F.B.I. now monitored by elementary school administrators. That being said, as I read To Teach: The Journey, In Comics, I never felt I was doing so for irony’s sake. When Ayers tells us that we should see teachers not as “masters and commanders” but as “explorers on a voyage of discovery and surprise,” I can’t help but wonder whether this is how he’d also like us to view the “historical Ayers”—as someone who may have gotten lost at times and veered off course, but who could never resist the inexorable pull of the sea.
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