Friday, February 25, 2011

Troubled Youth

"... he drew stick figures of himself with a gun, pointed at four other stick figures with the words "teachers must die."

This sort of thing happens every so often: a student draws a violent image and is hauled away for suspension or arrest. Even if the kid is 11 years-old and is following instructions from his therapist. I suppose if it isn't nipped in the bud they might grow up to protest Wisconsin teachers. Or worst still, maybe become a cartoonist.
While I certainly spent my share of time in the school councilor's office for a variety of infractions, looking back over some of my adolescent art doesn't raise any red flags, aside from general weirdness. I mean, I turned out just fine. I suppose to some extent it's cathartic to channel feelings into cartoons, the whole "express yourself" thing, but I wouldn't presume to project deep psychological meaning into most student work. That said, in the current atmosphere of today's educational system I probably would have been either medicated into a compliant zombie, or been a prime candidate for boot camp. 

It reminds me of a "warning sign checklist" distributed amongst the art faculty a number of years back in the aftermath of another school shooting:

__Exhibits antisocial behaviors or indications of loneliness. The student may have only a few or even no close friends.
__Shows signs of low self-esteem.
__May have feelings of hopelessness, despair or exhibit an “end of the world” philosophy.
__May disregard and refuse to follow rules.
__Has a history of substance abuse.
__Displays consistent and long term signs of clinical depression or has noticeable mood swings.
__Exhibits feelings of superiority.
It was pointed out how on some points it almost doubled as a checklist for art major behavior. This is all compounded by what to many Interior Alaskans is another familiar list of symptoms over any given winter:

• Persistent sad or empty mood
• Tearfulness/emotionality
• Decreased energy or fatigue
• Significant weight change
• Restlessness, agitation, irritability
• Difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness
• Infrequent class attendance
• Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness
In all seriousness, it's one of the greatest challenges to a teacher when concerns about student conduct arises: providing a safe environment in the classroom is one of the bottom lines, and any questionable situation needs to be dealt with promptly and professionally. I've learned over the years it's safer to err on the side of prudence: alerting someone else is crucial, even if it's a gray area. Fortunately most campuses are well-staffed with resources and information, and I've always been extremely grateful to get second opinions from another perspective. In that way, "getting help" isn't just for a beleaguered teacher, it may very well also help someone who might be in trouble. So often the Beginning Drawing courses turn into a sort of basic Beginning College class, as many freshmen are routinely overwhelmed by any number of factors. 
The flip side of the coin is when dealing with the potentially darker side of artistic expression, as many assignments can provide an opportunity to confront or expunge controversial or taboo subject matter. There's been many an instance where I've come to a grisly end at the hands of an enthusiastic cartooning student, which it's long as it's funny or particularly imaginative was okay by me (an irony being that I of course could never reciprocate the gesture). Artists routinely encounter enough rejection and hostility as it is from the "real world" - the classroom should be a neutral ground for exploring and discussing how to deal with criticism, and even questionable content.  

Many of the more persistent myths about creative personalities are in fact the very same stereotypes listed above - which in my personal experience are at odds with the overwhelming majority of artists, most of whom tend to be fairly unassuming, if not altogether boring, people to be around. You know, "normal." Especially cartoonists, who might not necessarily be all that funny in person.

"Good morning, Eeyore," said Pooh.
"Good morning, Pooh Bear," said Eeyore gloomily. "If it is a good morning, which I doubt," said he.
"Why, what's the matter?"
"Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can't all, and some of us don't. That's all there is to it."
"Can't all what?" said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
"Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush."

- A. A. Milne


  1. As crappy as I've ever felt I never believed that an orgy of violence would alleviate it in any way. I don't see the slapstick appeal in someone else's gory mishap or brutalization. Some people do, though. It's part of the continuum of all values that shades from one extreme to the other through all degrees of expression. Where is "the line" and when has it been irrevocably crossed? At what point does any behavioral characteristic go beyond a quirk to become an actual threat?

    We're many years from understanding a lot of this because much of it hasn't even been studied, let alone studied in depth. Yet it's a fundamental question underpinning all sorts of issues whether we have a social obligation to provide basic support for each other to whether citizens have an unfettered right to strap on shootin' irons and walk around with them all the time in case they take a hankering to kill someone who needs it.

  2. "It's always funny until someone gets hurt"
    Not to belittle the sentiment in any way by being flippant, because that's more often than not been a consistent mantra I've observed all my life.

    From the perspective of someone who has a fairly fucked-up sense of humor and lots of experience with the boundaries of good and bad taste, it causes no end of potential problems, AND hilarity.

    I have a long-simmering mull over this topic that's been brewing away, having been recently made aware of some inadvertent transgressions + unintended consequences. Not apologetic in any way, just validation and awareness of other points of view on what's over that "line," what's acceptable under what circumstance, considering the source and/or the motives, etc.

    One damn thing is for sure: an armed society is most definitely NOT a polite one.