“MISS: Not About That Life”
EMILY JAMES is a teacher and writer in NYC. Her recent work can be found or is forthcoming in Guernica, River Teeth, CHEAP POP, Pithead Chapel, Pidgeonholes, Hippocampus, Atticus Review, The Rumpus, JMWW Journal, and others. She is the recipient of the 2019 Bechtel Prize from Teachers and Writers’ Magazine. You can find her online at emilysarahjames.com and tweet her @missg3rd.
Her ongoing series Miss debuts on The New Comics this week, and will run twice a month through the fall.
ON WHAT PEOPLE ARE LIKE
Ever since I began teaching almost 15 years ago, I’ve been enthralled at the personalities of my students. It was only after teaching and having conversations with my non-teacher, mostly white friends, that I realized how much the media has informed our perceptions of what these kids are like. Our perceptions are misconceptions. Not only are the students different from what outsiders believe them to be, but being umbrella’d in that type of stereotype also undermines the very human truth that they are so drastically different from EACH OTHER. Hence why it makes me feel sort of sick when people ask me that one question: What are your students like?
They are people. Some of them love Disney music. Some of them love to fix cars. Some of them have backpacks organized alphabetically and some of them turn in tattered worksheets with food stains all over. Some of them curse, some of them pray, some do both at the same time. I have been searching for some time for the right way to show this reality of our kids in a sort of fast-paced, fitting format.
During a class at City College this past semester, my professor Emily Raboteau introduced me to Mira Jacob’s new book, Good Talk. As a mother, I found Jacob’s collages of drawings, photography and dialogue worked so well in portraying the way we talk to our own children. Our sons and daughters are asking us, “What happens when you die, and can I have three more Ritz crackers, not the broken kind?” all in the same breath. I thought as I read it, “Wow, this may be a really perfect way to portray the beauty and complexity of interactions with NYC kids.”
The reality of the experiences I go through daily, the experiences these comics are based off of, are not what I’ve seen depicted in other forms of media. They are not nostalgic or emotional. There is no soft background music. So many of my days are filled with humor, and tragic stories are told with a nuance of lightness. It’s rare to find a kid crying in a corner over something that happened to a family member last year. Instead, it comes up in a conversation about Snapchat filters. They talk about the death of their sister and then they offer you their Pringles. There is no new paragraph. It’s all in the same beat.
ON WHAT WE ARE
First I was a writer. Then, I became a teacher, and dropped that writer dream. After I won the Bechtel prize, and started getting more work published, I decided to take the leap and begin to describe myself to my students as a writer. Once I printed out one of my stories from The Rumpus, and we read it together as a sample during their narrative unit. It was very hard for me, but it made me see that the kids really loved seeing their teacher as a real writer. It gave them a sense of pride.
In terms of the comics, the kids absolutely love the idea. The stories are fictional, but they know they’re the inspiration behind them. They ask to read them all the time, and to help me with parts (“Nah, that’s not realistic”). They ask me every day how the project is coming. They love seeing me so engaged in something that has their essence at its heart.
I have always been interested in people, what they go through, how they view things, what makes them tick. And I don’t know why this is, but I never really felt I could be my true self until I began teaching. Something about being around city kids just let any layers I had peel off, and any doubt about who I was fade away. It’s possible I could attribute it to the way they accept all of me—even if they do make fun of my outfits and demand to fix my hair.
ON WHO NEEDS WHO
My end goal is to create a book that shows the multi-dimensionality of the students in NYC, and maybe city students everywhere. I want to help pick open the stereotype that is weighing these kids down—particularly my male students of color, who I find are robbed most by a society that sees them as more grown up than they actually are. There’s a widely-researched phenomenon that people perceive boys of color as much older than their actual age. What’s worse than robbing kids of the right to be kids?
There’s also that one similar story I’ve seen told over and over: the “tough” kid who’s saved by a teacher who isn’t scared of them. My experience has been so completely different. For everyone one difficult kid, there are so many more thousands that are wide open and incredible from the jump. These kids are not hard to get to know. They will swoon at the idea of building gingerbread houses; they will fill up our watering cans, water our plants, and build our daughter’s Valentine’s Day box, complete with her name in glitter.
I’m sure most good teachers can attest to this: we need these kids just as much as they need us, if not more.
Want to be considered for The New Comics? Send work to Comics Curator Keith McCleary via the Entropy submissions page.