Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence

47493017Joel Christian Gill is the creator of the graphic novels Strange Fruit Volumes I & II, which tell the stories of unsung African Americans. He turns the focus on himself in his powerful graphic memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence. His recounting of his young life is both brave and heartbreaking. He does not hold back in exposing the abuse and neglect he suffered and shows how it impacted the way he moved through the world. He admits how painful it was to recall these childhood memories – I can only imagine what it was like to live them, given how painful it was to read about them.

His father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to take care of him. He often had to stay with his mother’s friends or relatives, where he was sexually abused and neglected. School provided no refuge as he was also bullied by other children and mistreated by teachers. He was drowning but there was no one to throw him a life-line.  He had to swim his way out on his own. He shows how children subjected to violence in words and actions absorb it all; then, like sponges, they get filled up and start to “leak” that same behavior. Eventually he became like the children around him, a full vessel leaking abuse onto others.

He was kept afloat by the library, art and a few key friendships. Once he discovered how much he enjoyed drawing, he could lose himself in it. He struggled but made his way through middle school and high school. A decision he made at age 18 was surprising, but turned out to be life-saving.

Gill’s dramatic art, with saturated colors and expressive characterizations, brings you deep into his story and doesn’t let go. The scenes where he depicts his mistreatment manage to be simultaneously subtle, infuriating and devastating. Photographs from his early life through present day bring the story even closer. The language is as evocative as the visuals. In addition to imagining children as sponges, he uses fire to represent harm. Some people are arsonists, deliberately causing pain, while others are accidental fire starters.  There are also those who do controlled burns — looking for the best place to start the fire. Although this book is difficult, it shows how young people, living under dire circumstances, can still find their way out to a healthy life. He leaves us with hope.

I don’t know what it took to create this memoir, but I admire Joel Christian Gill for doing it. I appreciate his note saying he didn’t do this as a catharsis.  Instead, he is speaking to young people who are experiencing trauma, sending the message that they can think for themselves and can choose a different path. He is also speaking to adults who witness young people acting as he did; he hopes they can recognize the roots of this behavior and seek to learn that child’s story.

Find Fights at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

A Gift You Don’t Want – But Sometimes Need

What’s worse than the school to prison pipeline?  The school itself becoming the prison.

36142487Morris “Moss” Jeffries is a high school student in Oakland, CA.  As a young child Moss witnessed his father being killed by police, leaving him subject to severe panic attacks. His close friends and family understand and support him, helping him through episodes. Moss’s school is underfunded: stapled, photocopied pages instead of bound textbooks, classrooms in disrepair, and students having to go without basic materials is the norm. Yet somehow there is enough funding for “student safety,” which begins with a police officer on staff who conducts random, mandatory locker checks. A confrontation between a trans student and the officer turns violent when he finds the student’s medication and, assuming they are a drug dealer, gets physical. The administration blames the student for the altercation and responds by escalating their tactics. Students are now forced to enter the building through metal detectors. Thanks to the incompetence – and enthusiasm – of the officers monitoring the detectors, a disabled student is severely injured. Despite being the very type of situation that triggers  Moss’s panic attacks, he finds himself helping to lead the charge to fight back against the school’s policies. His mother has a background in community activism. After her husband’s murder she’d stepped back, but engages again to help Moss and his friends draw on community support to plan peaceful protests. Those peaceful protests turn deadly, thanks largely to a combat ready police force. The event which finally leads the school to “reevaluate” the prison like practices is deeply cynical and absolutely realistic.

Author Mark Oshiro’s narrative accurately reflects the complexity of teens’ lives, deftly blending relationships, queer first loves, activism, and mental health issues.  The characters are well crafted, relatable and realistically diverse in culture, class, sexuality and gender identity.  An increasingly militarized police force, an overwhelmed, underfunded school system and the everyday issues teens face are woven into a story that at times reads much more like non-fiction. Even the weapons and tactics the police force uses on protesters reflect actual practices. This book broke my heart, made me angry, and inspired me.  I work in a public school and am blessed with a safety officer whose actions have repeatedly proven she cares about our students. Sadly I have observed other schools where the idea of safety was perverted into punitive rather than protective policies.

This story is sometimes painful to read, just as it should be. But the story is so well told and ideas within so important and inspiring, it should be read by young people and anyone who cares about them.

Mark Oshiro, Anger Is A Gift, TOR Teen