When I picked up Yo, Miss my thoughts first drifted to Dangerous Minds, i.e. My Posse Don’t Do Homework, i.e. that movie with Michelle Pfeiffer and Coolio—the gold standard (unfairly) of troubled teens and hard-working, involved teachers. To be honest, that kind of got me jazzed to read this, since I have great memories of that book. There is a bit of that here, albeit in a totally different format, with a different production value, and of course with less simplification and fewer happy endings. Ah, the joys of the independent comic book! Its publisher, Microcosm, is a bastion of the independent, the harsh, and the socially conscious graphic work, and Yo, Miss is no exception.
Happily rough-edged, with amateur but accessible artwork, Yo, Miss actually began as a series of zines by Lisa Wilde. It catalogs a year in Wilde’s life as an English teacher at Wildcat Academy, an alternative high school in New York City. She introduces a cast of students with struggles that have led them to this second chance school, including drug problems, gang affiliations, uncertain home lives and unplanned pregnancies. Wilde’s less than precise drawing abilities make the characters easy to confuse, which is unfortunate, because they are clearly distinct and important individuals that she cares deeply about. With a bit of effort, though, one begins to understand and appreciate the cast with all their imperfections, and to understand that just as some kids overcome their obstacles, some kids may also backslide through circumstance or their own choices. Academic deals are made, feuds are navigated and diffused, support is given, and sometimes punishment is meted out. It’s not a collection of feel-good anecdotes, though many small victories are celebrated. The reality of life for most of the students is so uncertain and so dependent on their lives outside of the program that just getting to school every day can be hard, let alone focusing or completing their school work.
Wilde narrates this uncertainty skillfully, turning her keen eye on herself and her fellow teachers and administrators as well. It is a frustrating job, and those who work with the students must negotiate with one another to make sure students are able to manage their workloads and their lives, while still remembering their job as teachers and mentors who cannot just rubber stamp education. Wilde is clearly proud of the work that she does, but she is also honest about the confusion, exhaustion, and frustration that come with the territory.
Ultimately, Yo, Miss is rough all around, for better or worse. The visual coarseness lends an air of authenticity and conveys how important it was to Wilde to get her story told in spite of her artistic limits. In many ways, that is very charming and attractive. However, the choppiness of the storytelling and the ambiguities of Wilde’s narrative tone are just a bit frustrating. As an educator with such a challenging job, Wilde certainly must have some strong convictions about the work that she does, but she keeps them largely under wraps here. Ultimately, I wish there had been a bit more of an agenda to make this a truly memorable and affecting work. As it stands, it’s a fascinating snapshot of a year in the life of a thoughtful teacher and her students, but not a call to action or challenge to our educational system. Of course, as a Microcosm publication, it is a call to action by default, but I wish it had yelled just a bit louder.
Yo, Miss: A Graphic Look at High School
by Lisa Wilde
Microcosm Publishing, 2015