Tuesday, January 31, 2006

El Bronx Comics

Jonathan is 17 and in 9th grade English for the 3rd year in a row. I'm not sure how this happened when his vocabulary easily rivals mine. When our word-of-the-day was ephemeral, Jonathan wrote (without looking it up in the dictionary), "Compared to trees, the lives of humans are ephemeral."

The main reason Jonathan underachieves in school is because he sleeps in class (probably partially due to meds), and for years, when he sat sleeping in the back of big, general ed high school classes with no special ed support, nobody woke him up. One teacher told me that last year, Jonathan "was so far gone on anti-psychotic meds" that he would just sit in class drooling. Keep in mind, though, that general ed teachers at my school tend to view special ed students as far less teachable than they are. Jonathan does have a serious mental disorder, but he's also extremely bright and teachable. Now that he's receiving the professional support he should've been getting all along, he's beginning to excel.

He's getting 100% (or close) on every vocab test, and he wins every spelling bee. My students have insisted on regular spelling bees ever since we watched Spellbound. Jonathan and Manuel always end up competing for first place, and they take the spelling words up to a ridiculously difficult level. Last time, we got to disingenuousness, and Jonathan got it right. So when he's not sleeping, Jonathan is actually somewhat of a savant. But today he slept. Or so I thought.

Today we began reading El Bronx Remembered by Nicolasa Mohr, which is a huge student favorite. It's a collection of short stories about Puerto Rican families living in the South Bronx from 1946-1956. The first story, "A Very Special Pet," really got the students cracking up. When we finished the story, it was time to write. I insisted again and again that Jonathan put up his head, and he said again and again that he didn't feel like writing. So I finally encouraged him to at least draw some scenes from the story. Whoa, did I strike a chord! I've never seen him perk up so quickly. "That's a good idea!" he said, and he quickly got out the beat up sketch pad that he carries with him wherever he goes.

In no more than 15 minutes, Christopher produced this (click to see enlarged version):

Holy crap! He memorized every last detail of the story when we were reading it out loud. "A Very Special Pet" is (in essence) about the Fernandez family and their beloved pet, Joncrofo la gallina. Joncrofo is named after Joan Crawford, Mrs. Fernandez's favorite movie star. The family bought Joncrofo so they could eat her eggs, but Joncrofo turned out to be a cantankerous old hen who never lays eggs. Still, the children love her. The Fernandez family is poor, and Mr. Fernandez has a cold, so Mrs. Fernandez decides to kill Joncrofo so her husband can have chicken broth and her eight children can have chicken and rice for dinner. (Okay, so it's a little predictable.)

Now the part of the story depicted in Jonathan's comic strip (in progress) begins. Joncrofo lives under the Hernandez's kitchen sink. When Mrs. Hernandez tries to grab Joncrofo to kill her, Joncrofo bites her finger, and Mrs. Hernandez yells, "Ave Maria!" Mrs. Fernandez then gets angry, gets a broom and says, "Ok, you wanna play games. You dumb hen!" Then she unties the twine fastened to Joncrofo's leg and the sink, and she pulls Joncrofo toward her.

You'll have to get the book or stay tuned for the rest of Jonathan's comic strip to find out what happens next.

After class, I excitedly showed Jonathan's comic strip to other teachers in the teachers' lounge. I said I thought Jonathan could pursue a successful career as a comic artist (our school is supposed to have an emphasis on the arts). The general ed math teacher scoffed and said, "A successful career as a comic artist? Yeah, that sounds promising."

What the hell? Who's more mentally ill? The brilliant kid who grew up in foster care and thinks so far outside the box that his teachers and society don't know what to do with him? Or the smug math teacher who can't think outside the box to save his life?

Somebody out there, give this kid a job! I'm also going to look for Jonathan's drawing of the character Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis (which we read last semester). I hope I can find it!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a comics expert, but I do have some art training. (You asked for opinions in your other post.)

It looks as though he's using an action character male torso as his basis for the character's body. (Notice the pecs and shoulder width, muscles, jeans and boots etc.) Most likely because it's what he's learned to draw in various poses, and can just change the head on to make new characters, or insert objects into the hands, as he's done with the broom. I'd be interested to see if he uses this same torso/body shape for other characters. If so, it means, as mentioned, he's learned to draw what he considers a template for bodies. The split-cell layout is pretty sophisticated forethought as far as designing the overall look.

It looks to me like he's probably "mimicking" at this stage, which is just fine. To have a career, (and yes, he can have a career at this, thank you Mr. Math Teacher) he'd need to have a broader ability with original characters, be able to draw gender/character type appropriate bodies, etc. All can be learned.

Don't know if he has access to a computer, but here's an online manga tutorial.


If no access to a computer, Marvel has a "How-to" book (How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way) you could probably get from the library, or just some manga books for him to look at might help. Plus, regular art books could help as well. Glad you found his interest. It's definitely worth encouraging.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Fred said...

Teaching is interesting, isn't it?

7:42 PM  
Blogger Digger Jones said...

I know little about the world of art, but I do know almost every blockbuster movie started out with drawn story boards, which required the artist to render the words of the story into pictures that were later translated into animation and live action film e.g. Lord of the Rings and Gladiator. I THINK those people get paid, Mr. Math Teacher, and probably a sight more than anyone sitting in the lounge.

I think it would be a cool and ideal job for someone with ASD.


9:25 PM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

What impressed me most about Jonathan's comic is not that I think it's his best piece ever (he's shown me better, more original art pieces, which I hope to post later), but that he managed to grasp and memorize details of the story while appearing to sleep. (The hen lived under the sink, bit Mrs. Fernandez's finger, she screamed Ave Maria!, the hen was tied to the sink with twine, etc.) I think maybe you have to read El Bronx Remembered to appreciate how dead on the details are.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. The first carnival of the bipolars is up, at Pax Nortona

You and/or your more mature students might find something useful there

This first Carnival of the Bipolars is my take on the electronic ties that dissolve the isolation that many bipolars feel from spending their lives in their living rooms, terrified of going out while in episode, scared of the “normals” who mock them and make sport of their fast-talking, their racing thoughts, the shaking that ripples from the tops of their heads to the soles of their feet and back again. Inside this disease at its worst is a continual soliloquy. We damn ourselves with karma and divine retribution. The illness thumps like a wobbly generator, stretching the truth and ripping at it. We are bad. We are bad. We are bad because our minds tell us so.
Most of the people who appear on this page suffer from my disorder. Others have similar problems for which my sympathy is deep. Of they live with someone like me. It’s hard enough being human. To have any disease or any order of pain, I think, is the profoundest expression of a large part of what our constantly growing and failing chemical reactions must be about. Choosing who to include and for what was hard. The arms of bipolar stardust stretch well beyond these representatives. I hope we’ll draw in more of our kind because no matter how distant we are, this Internet helps us to step out, to find others like us, and develop a new language that describes what our living is about.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Tom Layton said...

I really enjoyed this post. It brought back a fond memory:

I was teaching high school English to avoid the Viet Nam draft and buy some time until I could figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

As a first year teacher I got all the kids nobody else wanted. I was not experienced enough to avoid them. However, I came to enjoy this odd assortment of Navajos, hippies and general misfits so much that the "regular" teachers often called on me when they needed to communicate with one of "those" students.

The reading teacher asked if I would sit in on Johnny's vocabulary lesson.

"He just can't learn vocabulary," the teacher opined.

"Sure, 4th period is my prep. I'll do what I can."

It was painful to say the least. Teacher struggling. Johnny struggling. I was just about to flee during a log pause while Johnny gathered his thoughts, when I spied a greasy crumpled piece of paper in his back pocket.

"What's that?"

"It's a Drag Mag" he said, pulling the tattered publication from his pocket.

What's a Drag Mag?" I asked.

Everything changed – his posture, his facial expression, his voice. I was in his domain now.

"It's a magazine about dragsters. This one is 'Hot Mama in Drag'. It's a joke. Get it?"

For the next ten minutes he described the intricacies of the full-blown engine in the Hot Mama dragster. His greasy finger stamped the cams, the rods, the heads. Actually, I knew nothing about engines and can't remember the technical terms he used. I was lost. I was mesmerized.

The bell rang and he left. Silence.

"Well, Tom. It looks as if we are the ones who need extra vocabulary lessons."

I agreed.

It was in that moment that I knew I would be a teacher for the rest of my life and that I would always prefer to teach "those" kids.

4:31 PM  
Anonymous akeleven said...

One publisher of comic art (in the manga form) is actively looking for talented kids. Go to http://www.tokyopop.com/mangaonline/submissions.php

6:55 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

I'm a former foster child and current youth advocate: www.sunshinegirlonarainyday.com

Jonathan might find a venue to share his talents, as well as a circle of support, from Foster Care Alumni of America: www.fostercarealumni.org


4:27 PM  

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