Representation and why graphic novels are vital for it.

This week has seen another unnecessary attack on teaching thanks to the vile excuse for a news source that is The Sun (I have no interest in pretending to be impartial) and it has led to some horrific abuse that is completely unwarranted. I won’t post a link in case it makes them think they did something well! Now the article was focusing on changing house names to more modern role models and this led to lots of right wing cretins crawling out of the woodwork and proclaiming how lucky their children were for not going to that school and how we can’t delete history. But then a fascinating secondary wave of attack began, centered aorund the fact that Lee Hill (don’t know him but sounds like a pretty sound bloke based on what he’s done) was tattooed or to quote the article a “heavily tattooed headteacher.” Now how this is relevant to reporting the story I will never know because I’m sure he didn’t look at his tattoos and think you know what this bit of ink is right I should have a Greta Thunberg house but somehow it became relevant. At the end of the day I’m pretty sure children can relate a lot more to her than Nelson ( I’m from Nelson’s county and I wouldn’t care about the switch) so why shouldn’t they switch things up and modernise them? But that is a far bigger debate that I can’t solve here so back to looking at skin markings.

As a tattooed teacher myself I didn’t contemplate his choice of ink to even be an issue but then I dipped into the comments section to see a wave of attacks suggesting that he isn’t good at his job because he had his arm coloured in. This was followed by lots of teachers saying ‘well I’ve got them and it doesn’t make me worse at my job, I can’t believe we are discussing this in today’s age’. But that’s the problem just because lots of people accept them now doesn’t mean that everyone does and we forget that. I am a good example of this, my dad is 66 and loathes every single marking I have chosen to add to my body and I mean loathe. It doesn’t affect our love for each other but he still feels the need to tell me everytime he spots a new one that I shouldn’t get anymore and if he had it his way he would take them off me. My point here is that he is only just at retirement age, how many heads, CEO’s, teachers, professors etc are of a similar age or generation and thinking the same? Just because I love the fact my legs are colourful doesn’t mean my next boss will and actually we need to start thinking that if we want to change these opinions we need to do something not just get more tattoos and hope they start to like them. Otherwise as unfortunate as it is tattoos will have the potential to cause issues in the workplace.

Now obviously I don’t think my teaching is anyway worse because I have a T-Rex on my leg (in fact it used to help appease a tricky pupil in the past) but it also doesn’t make me better at my job. Lots of my colleagues are brilliant and have tattoos just like lots of them are brilliant who don’t have them. I’m sure if Jon Biddle rocked up tomorrow with a full Japanese sleeve he wouldn’t start burning down the library or forgetting how to add because it literally makes no difference to your teaching ability. If you want them great, if you don’t great, do what’s best for you.

This made me think about how we make the perception that they are a choice more obvious, after all we have finally realised that we need to represent all of society in literature rather than just one stereotypical view of life. So surely it is the same in regards to appearance, why shouldn’t children see images of different aesthetics – tall, thin, tattooed, long hair, no hair, piercings? To go further surely as well as looking at ethnicity we should also be looking at different body types and exploring those who have had to overcome other issues such as hearing and sight impairments, wheelchair users, limb amputees etc. If we want to create a more accepting society then we need to represent it more. We need to represent it all not just what we find comfortable.

So after all of this waffle I’ve come to tell you how the answer to this is not only more books but specifically comics and graphic novels. When I tried to think of books where people were represented having to overcome an obstacle to do with their body or simply appearing ‘differently’ (lets be honest there is no normal) I thought of multiple graphic novels that were also hugely popular in the classroom. El Deafo is a brilliant way of teaching readers how hearing loss can affect people, Cardboard Kingdom looks at a range of issues such as gender identification struggles and gender stereotypes. Raina Telgemeier has addressed several big issues but her work showing anxiety in Guts transformed some of the girls in my class who begun to realise it was normal to worry. Coming soon is the book Allergic about a girl who suffers with allergies, as someone who has developed a ridiculous intolerance to items like hand sanitizer, soap and washing up liquid (the pandemic has been interesting for my skin to say the least!) I can’t wait to read it and see how they show an issue some are embarassed of. I myself don’t love showing up to work when my skin is swollen and red but actually the children don’t care because they know why I’m like that and they are really understanding because they have seen it and someone has explained it.

Now the beauty of graphic novels is along with all these brilliant examples of showing why these things shouldn’t be an issue there are plenty of books that maybe don’t address one big issue but are filled with pages showing characters breaking sterotypes ( The Breakaways, Primer). Characters from all parts of the world are included and it gives us a chance to explore their culture and traditions. Stargazing and Pashmina show some fascinating insights into Asian culture and obviously Gene Luen Yang is a master of showcasing his upbringing in America but with Asian heritage, as is Kelly Yang with the brilliant Front Desk ( not a graphic novel but truly phenomenal).

Children in my class don’t bat an eyelid at different cultures and ethnicities mixing because they’ve been exposed to lots of it in books so surely the key is to keep doing this and make sure all of society is included. Perhaps if some of the people commenting on the article that sparked this debate had been brought up on a wider variety of literature in various forms they would be more tolerant of others now. All books are important in this but as a man who is passionate about the world of comics and graphic novels I think they can play a huge role in helping destroy people’s misperceptions without them even realising. If they read pages of text and see images showing people teaching with tattoos, women being treated equally, ethnic minorities being given equal opportunities then they won’t grow up expecting anything different. If we hide these things then how can we expect them to accept them?

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