Studs Terkel’s Working, a graphic adaptation by Harvey Pekar

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This is a reaction paper written for a course on Education and Work…

Pekar, H., & Buhle, P. (2009). Studs Terkel’s Working: A graphic adaptation. New York: New Press

Of course the first thing I noticed was that they didn’t profile any teachers! But I think this actually says something about my reaction to the book. The visual form of a graphic novel made the stories very intimate, moreso than when I listen to something on This American Life, for example, because of the scene and surroundings. There were some that I could picture myself in. The pictures amplified the already intimate stories of individual and community struggles, frustrations, joys, anxieties, discord, desires. In particular, the chapter about Dolores Dante, the waitress, brought to life the environment, the juxtaposition of the job with customers. On page 76, you see the way she is positioned over the customers, visually manipulating them, paralleling her attitude of control. On page 85, the acrobatics or ballet of keeping the tray balanced is wonderfully represented.

The most heart-wrenching story for me was of the migrant boy, particularly this line: “The children are the ones hurt the most. They go to school three months in one place, then on to another. No sooner do they make friends, they are uprooted. Right here your childhood is taken away. So when they grow up, they’re looking for this childhood they have lost.” (p. 22) It is so easy as a teacher to forget the world a child faces outside your classroom, especially when as a teacher you personally have no experience of what they’re going through. One summer, I taught in a “catch up program” for kids in an old mill town in Massachusetts. There was significant family issues for many of them, and one of my students spent the mornings sleeping under the desks. The supervisor’s attitude was that if this is a safe space for her to sleep, then that is the best thing we can do for her.

Finally, the last visual that came through strongly for me was the image of the hand, particularly in the story of the organizer. This is a fairly obvious symbol, but powerful nonetheless. You see the comparison between the father that worked with his hands and the uncle who used his hands only to cut coupons. (p. 28) You can then see the hand cutting the coupons on the left and bills falling, beginnig the motion that then opens onto the pyramid on the opposite page. The hands are prominent on the pyramid, working against each other in pushing the pole or turning the machine of some kind. The pyramid with the Eye of Providence at the top, similar to the backside of the dollar bill. On the dollar bill, the pyramid sits under the mottos “Annuit coeptis” (he favors our undertakings) and “Novus order seclorum” (roughly, new world order). Literally, the working people are attempting to change the way the world works through collective efforts of the hands, but I think you could see their efforts as futile due to the arms at the top that hold the machinery of the world still. The arms come from the sides, with suit coat sleeves and tie tacks, one hand resting easily on the top, “College professors and management types…” on one sleeve and “They have the kind of power Eichmann claimed for himself.” Eichmann was one of the major organizers and logistics manager of the Holocaust. He was found in 1960 by Israeli intelligence in Argentina and convicted of crimes against humanity. Below the left arm, is written, “They have the power to do bad and not question what they’re told to do,” which was Eichmann’s defense in his trial. The images are powerful and draw you in, revealing layer after layer of symbolism and meaning.

Last year, I took a MOOC on Comic Books and Graphic Novels, taught by Profession Kuskin at University of Colorado – Boulder. Not only was it a great course: I learned so much, and it gave me the skills for reading a graphic novel and a profound appreciation for the medium. I’m not sure if they’re run the course again, but I would definitely recommend it!

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