Interview: Bill Ayers Pt. 2 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews

Adaptation, it seems, was a far more involved job than Bill Ayers had initially anticipated. “Ryan [Alexander-Tanner] was my teacher,” the writer tells me. “A 26-year-old kid. I certainly knew what I thought about teaching and had a lot of ideas about teaching, but I had no idea of what I was going to learn, working with this kid.”

It’s certainly in keeping with a major theme of To Teach: The Journey, in Comics–every teacher has something to learn from his students, from kindergarten to college.

What the writer had initially planned on being a rather simple sequential update to his work turned into so much more. Tanner-Alexander moved into Ayers’s home, and despite being a self-proclaimed lifelong comics reader, Ayers will be the first to admit that he still has plenty to learn about the form.

[Part One]

Is there a way to effect change in education while still largely working outside the system—such as universities and the like?

You can never fully shed yourself of the system you live in. you can never fully say “I’m not part of that system.” Actually, it’s an on-going conflict and contradication. The thing you can do is work purposefully within that contradiction. You can never resolve it. You can never say, “I’m such a good person, I’m doing so many good things, that in my classrooms, there’s no certification going on.”

But I can say, that every semester, every term that I’ve taught, I’ve been inspired, fueled, excited by the kind of breakthroughs that my students make and the kind of breakthroughs I make, and it makes me go back, again and again, even though it’s a very difficult job. I always think of it as a wonderful, marvelous, ethical calling. It’s an intellectual challenge at the highest level. It’s about knowing the students before you as three-dimensional creatures. And that’s very, very challenging, because the creatures before you are dynamic, complex, changing.

I find the challenge of teaching to be so exciting. I love doing it. But did I ever claim to be free of the ugliness that I just described? No, never. But that’s true, incidentally of you or any other writer. It’s true of anybody. As much as people might try to be conscious and try to be free, all of us live with one foot stuck firmly in the mud and muck of the world as we find it. The trick is, can you also be a person who tries to take that second foot and strives to a world that could be. That’s what I think is worth the journey.

In terms of this two-way learning—getting as much from the students at they get from you—do you find that that applies equally across age groups? From kindergarten to college?

Yes I do. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to see it in kindergarten, because they’re more honest and more fresh. I’m now a grandfather of two, and sometimes I break through quickly with my students—sometimes it takes a little longer to prove to them that the kids they see before them (the students in elementary school and high school) really are able to teach them things. Sometimes it happens quickly and sometimes it takes more effort.

I was telling some students last week that, as a grandfather, I was privileged to be at the birth of both of my grand daughters. Some of my students are parents, but most are not. But you can imagine what it’s like when a baby is brand new and taken to her mother. The mother puts the baby to her breast, and the baby begins to nurse. The baby is ten minutes old, and already you begin to see a dialog.

It’s astonishing to watch, because the mother, who has read books about it, and is strong enough to hold the baby is certainly teaching the baby something about nursing. But the astonishing thing is, if you watch more than a minute, the mother is adjusting. The baby, at ten minutes old, is teaching the mother something. It’s quite remarkable.

One of the funny and amazing things is, for the two or three years that the nursing dialog is going on, it’s always changing. The baby is always saying new information, and the mother is always saying, “no, don’t bite me,” when the kid starts teething. And then, when they start to wean, and the baby says, “no,” and the mother says, “we’re finished, and you can have a bottle.” I witnessed this with my own kids, but to see it again with my grandchildren was so fun, because it was very clear that this very smart, accomplished, competent mother, was suddenly in the position of being a learner in the most basic dialog of all.

Is there something inherent in the comics medium that makes it a good tool for teaching? Why did you settle on that for the new edition of the book?

Well, you know, for me, it was much more spontaneous. I didn’t set out, deliberately to say, “here’s a cool way to…” But I am a fan of comic books and have been, all my life. I read them for enjoyment and pleasure. I consume them. And then, when my kids were growing up, my middle son, Malik, would never had read, were it not for the sports page and comics. I saw the power of comics on a kid who was 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12. The first novel he read was Maus. It moved him profoundly. He would have never read another novel. It was Maus that opened the world to him. I’ve always been a fan of comics, but I had no idea what was involved.

But speaking of being a learner, Ryan [Alexander-Tanner] was my teacher. A 26-year-old kid. I certainly knew what I thought about teaching and had a lot of ideas about teaching, but I had no idea of what I was going to learn, working with this kid. He is, to me, quite a genius about this form.

What I thought was going to happen, was he was going to illustrate my words—take my words and illustrate them. It took him quite a while, like a good teacher with a bit of patience and a bit of pushing, to say, “no, that’s not actually what we’re doing. We’re writing a new book. Get with the program.” One of the things that was funny about our work habits is, he’s a late night guy—he goes all night. I’m an early morning guy. I’ve written a lot in the last 25 years, but most of it has been between 4:30 and 10:30 in the morning. That’s when I get up and write. Ryan doesn’t go to bed until about five or six. So, we would have some of our meetings in the dark dawn. He would be at the end of his time, and I would be at the beginning of mine [laughs].

You were living in the same house at the time.

He moved in with us, yeah. We have a brownstone in Chicago in the south side, and Ryan was living in Oregon at the time, and he came out. We have three grown boys who are in their 30s. So they were gone. My mother-in-law lived with us for five years, and she passed away. My father lived with us for three years and then he passed away. They were both people with alzheimer’s. And then, thank god, Ryan moved in. We’d never actually had an empty nest.

Ryan was there and he was a lot of fun to live with. He was very patient. When I say “patient,” he was a really good teacher in the sense that he could be really patient and understanding with me and then he could push me, hard, when I needed to be pushed. I thought it was a great collaboration. I learned a lot about how comics work and how they don’t work. How they don’t work is, if he had illustrated my didactic writing. It wouldn’t have been very interesting.

As someone who has been writing his whole life, what were the major obstacles, as for as co-authoring a comic book?

Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve written my whole life. I published my first book when I was 45. And I’m now 65. So, about 20 years.

That’s pretty good.

Yeah, it’s not bad. And I’m working on some new stuff now that I like—actually, now that I think about it, I never thought of it like this. My first book was my dissertation, which I then turned into a book. And then I wrote a couple of other books and edited a couple of other books. And then, at some point, I wrote an ethnography about my time in jail. That gave me a lot of courage.

When I wrote that book, I suddenly though for the first time that I could write a literary memoir. That gave me the courage to write Fugitive Days. When we struck on this idea of a comic book, I thought I could do it in pace, but that wasn’t true. For me, the great challenge of it was that, on the one hand, we wanted certain ideas to be represented, but we wanted there to be a narrative that was credible, that was followable, that was compelling, that was seductive.

But I’d never written narrative like that. I don’t want to say it was “hard,” so much as it was an interesting challenge and discovery, to write a narrative about a character who we called “Bill” who has an iconic book. To get into the character of Bill, who is not me, exactly, but is a version of me as a young teacher, but mostly an icon that we settled on, was actually thrilling.

[Continued in Part Three.]

–Brian Heater

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