Comic books have grown up. In recent years, the graphic novel genre has exploded with fiction and nonfiction for all ages, including the award-winning March by John Lewis, about his work with the Civil Rights Movement; Marjane Satrapi’s novel Persepolis, about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution; and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which tells the story of his father’s experience during the Holocaust.
For many years, Fay’s eighth grade English teachers, Dan Roy, Lara Gleason, and Paul Abeln (English Department Chair), have taught Maus as a powerful example of memoir and how images can support narrative. This year, in celebration of Fay’s 150th anniversary, the teachers challenged their students to create their own graphic memoirs to tell the stories of Fay alumni.
“Our goal was to give students a deeper understanding of the art of storytelling and what makes it such an integral part of the human experience,” Lara explains. “By focusing on Fay alumni, we could also honor the School’s legacy in a tangible way.”
Earlier this fall, students were matched up with Fay alumni from many years, ranging from Paul Hertelendy ’45 to Carine Kanimba ’08. The challenge was the same, regardless of the decade: how to elicit the memories that make a personal narrative come alive.
“Rather than general memories about academics or sports, we wanted students to hone in on the ‘small moments’ that were pivotal in the alumni’s experiences of Fay,” says Dan Roy.
With that goal in mind, students met with Erin Sullivan, Director of Marketing and Communications, to discuss strategies for asking fruitful interview questions. Then the students met with alumni, sometimes in person, sometimes via video or email, for conversations that proved illuminating and moving.
“The students loved talking with the alumni,” says Paul Abeln, “and the in-person interviews were especially powerful. The students were surprised to hear about moments that were life changing for the alumni, and the students were amazed to discover how much they had in common with the alumni. Despite the gap in years, the Fay experience was a shared bond.”
Before embarking on the memoirs, the eighth graders met with Visual Art Coordinator and art teacher Chris Kimball, who provided a thorough introduction to the art of the graphic novel—from maximizing line and color to show movement within panels, to using thought and dialogue balloons to express ideas.
Then the students set to work, distilling their notes into words and pictures. The stories ran the gamut: arriving at Fay for the first time as a survivor from Hurricane Katrina, learning how to ice skate, selling candy in the dorms. Each story identified a powerful theme—such as making lifelong friends, finding a teacher or coach that helps you realize your potential, or learning the power of giving one’s best effort.
“Many of these students didn’t consider themselves artists,” Lara says, “yet they felt compelled to do a good job to honor the alumni. From many students, I heard, ‘I’ve never produced a piece of art that I felt this good about.’”
Paul notes that the project provided students with valuable insights into the creative process, which in turn led to a richer analysis of the material. Perhaps even more importantly, the project helped students see their own Fay experience in a new way: “Seeing someone be so moved by their memories of this school, even 20 years on, helped students recognize, maybe for the first time, the impact that Fay will have on their lives.”