I’m lucky enough to teach in a district that offers a wide variety of English electives, so students can choose to take anything from Film as Literature to Comics & Graphic Novels. Next year, a couple teachers will be piloting Feminist Literature, and when I heard about it, I wanted to share the good news with my Seniors in hopes that they would in turn share it with the Juniors who will actually be able to take the class. Here’s how the exchange went in my first period:
Me: Alright, people, I have a favor to ask you.
Whole Class: Anything for you, Mr. Whitaker!
(They adore me, btw)
Me: We are offering Feminist Literature next year, and we need you to spread the word for us. Please let any of your Junior friends know, so they can choose their classes.
*Marissa: (looking at another female student, disappointed) What? I wish I could have taken that!
*James: (mumbling) What about meninist literature? (I know, right?)
Me: I’m sorry, what was that?
James: (a little louder) What about meninist literature?
Here I had to pick up the papers that flew off my desk as a result of the collective female heads whipping to glare in James’ direction. Ignoring the fact that he had just made up a word, my answer was “You’ve been reading that your entire life,” and I went on to describe how important it is to read and experience art from multiple perspectives in order to understand others’ experiences. Then I moved on, because I had curriculum to cover, and time constraints, and yada yada yada. No matter what, though…I hate how I handled that. I normally welcome diversions and teachable moments, but this time…this time I just…
Ok, full disclosure time: I’ve actually uttered this same sentence out of my own young, dumb face. I was 19 years old (which is how I know it was a stupid idea), and I was in my first Women’s Lit class. This was literally the first week of the class, and I honestly don’t remember what triggered me to spew said ignorance, but I do remember the look all of the women in class gave me. It wasn’t anger I saw on their faces, but exhaustion. I know that, because it was the same look I had on my face when I was faced with this teenaged window into my past.
Sometimes I wish the ladies in that classroom so long ago had shaken me out of my ignorance, but then I think “Why was that their job?” They could have dragged me into the 21st century against my will, and educated me about why I was wrong, but who said that was their responsibility? No, instead of forcing me to get over myself and my fragile masculinity, they did something even worse: they continued to welcome my input in class discussions, opened themselves up to me and treated me as if I hadn’t signed up for a Women’s Lit class and thoughtlessly suggested that their should be a Men’s Lit class. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression here. I wasn’t some MRA who was only in the class the troll the female students. I was raised by two strong, beautiful women who were the best example of why I love women, and who would have crushed every bone in my idiot body if they caught even a hint of male chauvinism. The problem, I wouldn’t learn until much later, was the privilege I enjoyed as a man, and when my “norm” was challenged I behaved like the 19-year-old I was: rashly and without thinking. I can’t say I ended that class as a feminist, but I can say that I left that class a lot more open to the idea that my norm wasn’t the norm.
At the same time as this awakening (shout out to Kate Chopin!)was happening, I started reading comics again after a seven year break. It started with webcomics like College Roomies From Hell and It’s Walky, but then I discovered Vertigo (the DC imprint, not the Hitchcock movie or inner ear ailment). You have to understand, before taking my break, THIS was the last comic I read:
I literally didn’t even know what a graphic novel was, or that comics were collected into these things called “trades” before I read The Sandman. Neil Gaiman introduced me to a world where comics are “serious reading.” Where story is paramount, and characters are more than their powers and costumes. Soon I was reading Watchmen, Box Office Poison, Preacher, 100 Bullets, Ghost World, and Blankets. My library card was beginning to fray from overuse as I started to expand my horizons more and more, and like any good reader, I began to learn, and change, and grow, and understand. College was where I sharpened my ability to think critically and to evaluate ideas, but my rediscovery of comics was what allowed me to fall in love with story again.
As an education major, and eventually once I became an educator, I found myself surrounded by brilliant women. My Women’s Lit class was only the tip of the iceberg, I soon found, and while I grew into a more enlightened man, there was still room to grow. Working in a female dominated profession has afforded me the opportunity to learn from, and respect women in a way that I am sad to think I might not have had I gone into another field. I appreciate the women who have mentored me, befriended me, and worked with me, and I am grateful to have benefited from these professional relationships to the extent that I have.
Fast-forward to four years ago, and I’m starting to use comics in my classroom. I wanted to find a community of people like me, who love comics and geeky stuff, and I wanted to expand my PLC (professional learning community), so I turned to Twitter. Here I started to follow people I respected in both comics and education, and I began to learn more and more about how limited my worldview still was. Say what you will about social media, but its ability to connect people and to give voice to the previously voiceless is invaluable. I began to learn from people of different cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, sexual preferences and any other group, category or special interest one can think of. It was the comics community (or at least the people I follow in the comics/geek community) that helped me find the words to talk about the importance of representation. It was the comics community that introduced/reintroduced me to Kelly Sue Deconnick, Kate Beaton, Gail Simone, Janelle Asselin, Lexi Alexander, Black Girl Nerds, Ariell Johnson (my hero!), #Blerds, and so much more. The comics community, just like those women over a decade ago, included me in the discussion, and helped me to learn rather than forcing me.
Last year, I watched a documentary called She Makes Comics. After watching it, I learned that a woman named Kate Berger, first executive editor (and founder in my opinion) of Vertigo, was the reason I got back into comics. I wonder what 19-year-old me would have thought if he knew this? Part of me knows, he would have been fine with it, but the other part of me knows he would have been a little shocked. 19-year-old Ronell wasn’t stupid, or closed-minded, but he was inexperienced and misguided, and he thought he knew it all (some things never change). But women like Karen Berger opened doors for him when he didn’t even know it, and for that Old Man Mr. Whitaker is grateful.
My goal this semester is to make sure James knows about the doors that women are opening for him and others in his class. He will not see “feminist” as a pejorative in my class, and he will experience stories from other norms than his own. I won’t force James to learn, but I hope that I can include him in the discussion, open myself up to him, and help him to learn.
*Student names changed to protect their identities