When I was in the fifth grade, I drew a picture on a sheet of notebook paper during my free time after our lesson. A cranky substitute teacher, Mr. Ball, walked around the class and saw that I was using my time to draw. He crumpled the paper in his wrinkled hand and threw it in the waste basket by his desk. I don’t remember what his lesson was on, but to this day, I remember that moment. I remember it every time I start work on a painting that someone is paying me to do, or whenever I finish designing art for a musician’s album.
Art and music programs are often considered expendable when it comes to school budgets. For years, they’ve been cut, trimmed, downsized, or left for dead by bureaucracy and politics.
Flash forward to a beautiful 70 degree July morning in California, 2015.
San Diego Comic-Con 2015 held a large panel, teeming with a crowd of educators, children, cosplayers and people of all ages, with Congressman John Lewis. Lewis is a civil rights icon who actually cosplayed as himself to the convention, only himself 50 years ago as he marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He wore a replica of his trench coat, a backpack with the same contents he had that day and the same style of khaki pants he had worn when he made his historic and march and was met with violence and hatred.
Congressman Lewis, along with artist Nate Powell and co-author Andrew Aydin, has written a series of graphic novels depicting his unbelievably powerful life story and a first hand telling of the civil rights movement. The books are being used in schools as a way to allow students to see more than just the few talking points that the civil rights era is generally given. The stories cross a broad range of emotions and time periods, from his childhood and beyond. Powell’s art delivers a first-person view in the second book, from a point of view of the ones who were throwing the punches. The art is driving, the stories are powerful, the history comes alive.
“You can’t sugarcoat history, or the way people were treated. White people were arrested right beside me and put in a separate jail. You have to tell that.” Lewis went on to say the actions of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired him to get into trouble in a good way. “Good trouble” as he called it.
Co-author, Andrew Aydin, approached Lewis about a graphic novel of his life in passing in 2008. Other members of congress laughed at the idea, but Lewis saw it as a great way to reach young people, offering hope. Aydin said that this was actually not the first time the civil rights movement was addressed in the form of a comic book. In 1957, Martin Luther King was a part of editing a comic book of his own life.
The March books are already being used in 40 schools and colleges. The books are breaking barriers and opening doors of opportunity for teachers to address the decades of change that the movement has brought about in a way that is very unique. A teacher from San Diego mentioned during the panel that she is struggling to teach the second book because it is so powerful and emotional. She asked for advice on how to approach the book with her students. Powell said, “The second book is ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ It’s darker, but it’s necessary to the story.” That resonated with the crowd. There has to be a struggle for there to be an outcome.
Lewis was asked what the most pressing point of struggle is today and how can we address it. He said that there are several, but he saw student loans and education as something that demands our attention. “People are spending a fortune on education in this country, only to graduate and have to work just to cover the costs of that education. Martin Luther King’s dream has not been realized. We also need to raise the minimum wage.” The solution, from Lewis’s perspective, is that people must “continue to cause trouble in a good way.”
This took me back to the story of Mister Ball, the cantankerous old substitute who threw my artwork into his trash can, with no regard for the work I had put into it, or how I would grow up to work in the art field as a professional. Congressman Lewis had his own versions of mean ol’ Mister Ball. Lewis caused trouble, in a good way. Disturbing the status quo can break the chains of traditional hypocrisy, bigotry, or malevolence in any form. It occurred to me that Congressman Lewis prioritized education as one of the most important struggles today. The cost of furthering an education, the educators themselves and the approach to education all were key elements in the panel discussion and a dynamic allocation to the answer of causing trouble is through art.
Art will find a way to live on in schools, as will music and creativity, in spite of cutbacks and budget adjustments. The Mister Balls of the world will come and go, but there will always be a student causing trouble, in a good way.