The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller's flawed classic that, along with Watchmen and Maus, breathed life into the graphic novel, was originally released as four individual books in 1986.
Book Two concerns an older Batman's return from retirement and his struggle against the Mutants, a criminal gang of body-modified, psychopathic thugs terrorizing Gotham City. In his first, brutal, ill-considered encounter with the mutant leader, a hulking bruiser with huge muscles and filed teeth, he loses miserably. The leader taunts Batman - "Ha! You slow, man!" - as he beats the hero senseless, the carnage stopped only by the intervention of a new Robin.
Batman retreats to his cave and regroups, both physically, with the aid of the loyal and competent Alfred, and mentally, through rededication to his original purpose.
Filled with a new resolve, he engineers a rematch with the leader, this time with a better strategic plan and precise tactics, and humiliates him in front of his gang: "You don't... get it, boy... this isn't a mudhole... it's an operating table. And I'm the surgeon." This act disperses the gang, ending their power in the city.
Why is this summary in Blockhead Rhetoric, a place for thinking about teaching, instead of in Four-color Ma? Because I returned to The Dark Knight Returns not out of my interest in comics, but because yesterday I needed a story about failure and redemption.
After Monday and Tuesday, I had taught the first session of all three of my classes at Cascadia, and I was not happy. I felt vaguely dissatisfied, with the nagging conclusion that Things had not gone as well as they could have, and should have. For the first time in a long while, at least in the classroom, I felt that I had wrestled with Failure and been thrown to the mat. The feeling was severe enough to make me begin to question myself and my career choices and my very competency.
I retreated to my own cave and cast about for some solace and guidance from myth and story, some narrative that I could hold onto and make meaning from. I recalled this episode and pulled it out to re-read. There it was: abject failure, followed by renewal and success.
The parallel with the story extended beyond just the narrative I hoped to create. In the comic, Batman fails because he had been inactive for some time and acts without consideration for his no longer being the young hero. His old ways wouldn't necessarily work; he succeeded when he grew and adapted. Similarly, I have been out of action: this summer was the first time in four years that I went for more than two weeks without being in a classroom, and I was rusty. Moreover, this particular summer has been a time of change for me, and I realized upon reflection that my discomfort in the classroom came from within, not without: I am not the same person I was back in June, and I was not quite sure how to act in a classroom.
Heartened by the model of childhood hero, I started today with vigor. I went into campus early and planned out my lessons with this new perspective in the forefront, consciously and deliberately letting the present me inform my praxis. The creative juices flowed and I felt in control of my decisions; I could visualize how I wanted my new relationship with the class to look.
And in the afternoon, I went into my lit class and grappled the mutant thug of Self-doubt to the ground, throwing him, pinning him, and defeating him. The lesson sang like a diva; it sailed like a yacht on a clear day and raced like a Formula One car. The discussion was robust and productive, the students were alert and interested, my contributions were minimal, precise, and well-received, and, boon of boons, we had more material than time to cover it - always a good sign. The class was an operating room, and I was the surgeon. I left the campus tonight renewed, eager for tomorrow morning's 101.
I'm not the Batman. But the Teacher Returns.