Mark Pett married his two loves -- teaching and cartooning -- and produced Mr. Lowe, a comic strip dedicated "to the unsung heroes who manage our nation's classrooms... and the kids who aggravate them." He tells Education World how it happened. Included: Pett's recollections of his funniest teachers and the funny -- and not so funny -- moments from his teaching days. Plus advice for first-year teachers.
"In 1994," according to his online biography, "Mark Pett put his artistic career on hold to work in Mississippi's public schools. Teaching sixth grade confirmed Pett's beliefs that (1) a good education is imperative for America's burgeoning poor, and (2) 12-year-olds are spawns of the devil." Pett shares those and other educational insights with the world through "Mr. Lowe," a comic strip "loosely based on Mark's own experiences as a teacher."
Enjoy more of Mark Pett's humor by viewing a series of cartoons from his Mr. Lowe comic strip.
Education World: According to your online biography, you put your artistic career on hold to work in Mississippi's public schools. How does a political cartoonist wind up teaching sixth grade in Mississippi?
Mark Pett: I'd always wanted to teach. When I got out of college, I went to live in Prague [Czechoslovakia]. I split my time between drawing political cartoons and teaching English to Czech adults. I realized I loved teaching, and when I returned to the States, I signed up for Teach For America. [That group] found me the job in rural Mississippi.
EW: How did you feel the first time you walked into a classroom as the teacher?
Pett: I should probably have been fearing for my life, but I didn't. I was excited. When I'd taught the Czech adults, my teaching style had been wild, outgoing, animated, and spontaneous. It served to entertain them and keep their attention. With sixth graders, my untamed style, coupled with my total lack of classroom management, served only to propel the class out of control, where it remained for the rest of my first year.
When I changed rooms between my first and second years, the teacher who got my old room actually performed an exorcism on the room. Given what went on in there my first year, she was convinced it was possessed by demons.
EW: When I was beginning my teaching career, a frazzled veteran told me, "Whatever you do, don't smile until Christmas." Did you follow that advice? Do you wish you had or hadn't?
Pett: Someone told me the same thing. My first year, I paid no attention to the advice. But I was a totally different person my second year. I established order the first day and did whatever it took to maintain that tenuous state -- including carrying a yardstick and losing my sense of humor altogether. When I cracked a smile sometime around spring, one girl cried out "Look, he's smiling! He never smiles!" Just thinking about that makes me cringe. Now, when I teach cartooning to children, I let myself smile and make jokes all the time. Somehow, they know when I mean business.
EW: What were the funniest words you ever heard spoken in the classroom?
Pett: When I said, "Who did that?" and honestly expected an answer.
I spent a lot of time laughing and making jokes when I first started teaching sixth grade. I had gone into it thinking I would be like Robin Williams teaching English in Good Morning, Vietnam. My classroom did end up being like Vietnam, but not in the way I'd expected.
EW: Were you a funny teacher?
Pett: I'm sure I was hilarious to watch. In fact, I just uncovered some videotapes of me teaching my first year. On them, you see what children resort to when they have a totally inept teacher. If you can get over feeling sorry for the children, they're a riot to watch.
EW: Who was your funniest teacher?
Pett: When I was in high school, I had a history teacher who would don the costume of whatever historic people he was teaching about. When he told us how the Greeks considered all outsiders barbarians, he reasoned that being a non-Greek, he was therefore a barbarian. He put on a cloak, stepped into the hall, and shouted at the top of his lungs, "I AM A BARBARIAN!!!" Every year, we heard him bellowing through the halls, as he taught a new class about the Greeks.
EW: Your biography also quotes you as saying that "12-year-olds are spawns of the devil." Do any particular "spawns" from your teaching days come immediately to mind?
Pett: I think in rural Mississippi we had more than our share of children with real emotional problems. Unfortunately, we were in a part of the country that was almost completely overlooked by the system, so rarely did children get the help they needed.
There was one girl who always gave me a difficult time. She saw sitting in her seat as entirely optional and used me and her classmates to try out various expletive-laden insults. One day, after school, she stopped by my classroom and said in her sweetest voice, "Mr. Pett, can I have a piece of candy?" When I calmly asked why I should do that, given her behavior in my classroom, she promised that were I to give her candy, she'd be good for the rest of the year. I figured it was worth a shot and said I'd settle for one day of cooperative behavior. She signed a contract in exchange for one piece of candy. I could hardly sleep that night, I was so looking forward to having her in class the next day. When she showed up at my door the next day, I sweetly asked how she was, to which she uttered something entirely unprintable. "But you promised," I said. She looked at me (I swear her eyes turned red) and said in a throaty voice, "I lied."
That same child later bit me.
EW: How did those little devils influence "Mr. Lowe"?
The children in Mr. Lowe's class are kind of a composite of the children I taught. I feel like I'm toning it down, though.
EW: What was the funniest incident that occurred while you were teaching? Have you created a cartoon about it?
Pett: I had one burly sixth grader who easily outsized me -- and I'm 6 feet tall. He was constantly causing trouble in the classroom. One time -- I forget what he did -- I put on my sternest teacher face and went to admonish him. Before I could even finish my sentence, he looked at me earnestly and said, "Can't we all just get along?" Something about the way he said it made me totally crack up, and I lost the moment completely.
There's something about the most hilarious moments that makes them not translate completely into comic form. I guess you need to know the actual kids to fully appreciate the humor. I suspect most of the humor in "Mr. Lowe" will be inspired by, but not totally taken from, real life.
EW: Why did you stop teaching?
Pett: My insurance refused to cover such hazardous work anymore.
Teaching was the hardest job I've ever had -- and easily the most satisfying. After two years, however, I felt like I had to get back to cartooning. I'll never totally give up teaching, though. I still love teaching cartooning classes to children and adults in the community.
EW: Did you decide to focus on teacher humor because you think teachers need humor more than those in other professions or because you think that schools offer more opportunity for humor than other workplaces or ...? Why did you decide to focus on teacher humor?
Pett: It took me three years after leaving teaching to feel like I could laugh at the experience. Then I felt I needed to draw a comic strip about the whole experience. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a great concept. I mean, everyone knows, is, or has had a teacher. And there is definitely no shortage of material.
EW: What single piece of advice would you give the "novice, idealistic teachers" entering classrooms for the first time?
Pett: Try cartooning instead -- it's not that hard.
Actually, the most important thing I learned is, no matter how "in need" your students are, expect them to succeed. In many ways, children become what you expect of them. Though it may not seem like it when they're climbing out windows or throwing things at you, those same kids can do amazing things.
Editor's note: "Mr. Lowe" is distributed nationally through Creators Syndicate, Inc. If it's not available in your area, contact the editor of your local newspaper.
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