During the presidential election of 1996, I was in Mr. Olbin’s fifth grade class. Our teacher wanted us to be as engaged with the world as possible, and he was willing to do almost anything to make sure that happened. He gamified learning before gamify was a buzzword, filling his classroom with puzzles and creating a point system for accomplishments; he dressed up as crazy characters for different subjects; and turned math into an exercise in creativity with the Four Fours project.
With such a brilliant and creative mind, it’s no surprise he found a fun way to bring the election and politics into the classroom. He dedicated an entire unit to the election and the first assignment was to draw our own political cartoons. As students, we embraced this challenge warmly, like we did most assignments in his class; his enthusiasm was infectious. The first step was learning to draw each candidate as a caricature.
My teacher explained that political cartoonists, instead of aiming for exact verisimilitude, drew exaggerated physical characteristics to create a caricature. Thus they focused on Clinton’s big chin and nose, Dole’s constant grip on a pen in his injured hand, and Perot’s height and large ears. As 10 and 11-year-olds, we found these concepts not only exceptionally easy to grasp, but also hilariously funny. What’s more funny to fifth graders than someone else’s deformities?
To help us get an idea of what professional political cartoonists were drawing, Mr. Olbin assigned us the task of creating an election scrapbook, for which we gathered clippings of political cartoons we found in news magazines and newspapers, and also election-related articles and photos. While I found drawing cartoons fun, scrap-booking perfectly suited my crafty sensibilities and I really dove into this task with relish.
My parents received the magazine Newsweek, which, upon its arrival in the mail, I would immediately requisition for my school project. Kneeling on the avocado green carpet on my bedroom, I clipped out almost entire editions of Newsweek, to paste into my scrapbook. (I highly doubt my parents got to read any of the articles before they were sacrificed to my scissors.) I particularly liked the page that had pithy quotes from important figures of the day, used to summarize the week’s news. At age 10, the articles were, for the most part, over my head or too boring, but I was fascinated with the idea that pictures could tell a story. Soon photos, quotes, and cartoons, crusty with glue-stick, festooned the pages of my scrapbook.
Clinton won the election, and in Mr. Olbin’s class we moved on to some other educational unit, but my political scrap-booking didn’t end there. Now I was hooked on the pages of Newsweek — well the photos anyway.
A few years later, the war in Kosovo caused a refugee crisis. As I pored over glossy news magazine pages and clipped interesting snippets, I was arrested by the desperate photos of the refugees fleeing violence and ethnic cleansing.
It affected me deeply to stare into the eyes of people in trouble, people in pain, and people who suffered due to the acts of politicians or those in power. Unblinking they stared back at me, speaking volumes without words.
While it would be a few more years before I began to experiment with image-making of my own, these early encounters firmly cemented my sense of the immense power of the visual and its essential place in political storytelling.
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