When Judy Harmatz introduced the idea of political cartooning to her sixth-grade class at William Ramsay Elementary School in Alexandria, the children demonstrated -- as children often will -- the boldface candor adults call "wit."
To Harmatz's surprise and delight, her 24 students created an impressive assortment of winged dollar signs, sword-bearing ayatollahs and domestic politicos with exaggerated teeth and jowls. Complete with captions that ran uphill, misspellings and allusions to television commercials, the cartoons were all the more devastating for their lack of professional gloss.
One drawing, by a Norman Rockwell-type towhead named Donald Ladner, said it all. With clear reference to a nationally advertised antacid, Donald drew a darkly menacing Khomeini holding up a globe labeled "indigestine" (sic) and populated with hostages, oil and gold. To the cartoon's title, "How Do You Spell Relief?" the ayatollah replies, "I spell it S-H-A-H."
To get the project underway, Harmatz explained the difference between comic strips and political cartoons and sent the students home to clip cartoons from newspapers.
When the children returned the next day, Harmaz said, "We talked about what the cartoonists were trying to say. Then we brainstormed about what could be done in terms of subject matter."
After the children completed their cartoons, free-lance cartoonist Bruce Kauffmann, Harmatz's Georgetown neighbor, visited the class to critique the students' work. He was genuinely impressed, and told them so.
"One of the key elements of an effective cartoon," he said, "is simplicity."
To illustrate, he held up a cartoon by British-born Sara Evans, a sandy-haired girl who, with characteristic understatement, had drawn the world with Ayatollah Khomeini standing on top of it, then had turned the page upside down to write the caption: "He thinks he's on top of the world."
Sara drew several versions of her cartoon before she was satisfied. "I was thinking of variations on (the song) 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," because the ayatollah thinks he has control of the world."
Kauffmann also discussed about specific techniques such as exaggeration and the use of symbols, holding up one example after another in which elevators, scales, graphs and oversized dollar signs stood for inflation.
"The idea of transferring facts into symbolism is pretty sophisticated for students of this age, but some of them are really subtle," said Harmatz, pulling out a six-panel drawing by Sammy Miller of a man chewing gum and holding a pack of gum in his hand.
"I remember when gum was five cents," the man says in the first panel. As the price of his bubble gum goes up in each successive panel, the bubble he is blowing (inflation) gets larger, and eventually he is floating off the ground. By the sixth panel, gum costs 45 cents and the man, now suspended high in the air, is saying, "I hope my bubble will pop."
"I like this one a lot," said Kauffmann, "although if I were doing it, I would make the bubble larger, really huge by the last panel -- for exaggeration. That's an important technique."
Kauffmann also advised the children, "You need to read everything, keep current and talk about what you read" to generate good ideas for cartoons.
Harmatz's class, it turns out, is off to a running start on that one. Both teacher and pupils consider their frequent classroom current-events discussions a "break" in the day. Homework assignments often include watching television news or reading about specific topics in the newspapers. A bulletin board in the classroom bears a huge sheet of paper labeled "Primaries," on which the class will chart the progress of the presidential contests.
Even with such preparation for cartooning, Harmatz said she had some misgivings about the project at first. "The idea of doing something creative usually seems hard to them, but they didn't seem to find this hard."
"No," said Kenneth Parker, "it wasn't hard. I was just sitting there watching cartoons on TV before school, and I suddenly remembered the hostages were beginning their second month over there, so I just thought of doing my cartoon of the hostages tearing the November page off the calendar."
"I had no trouble getting an idea," said David Bailey, "Mom makes me watch the news."
Robin Bernstein said she called her Dad to ask him for ideas. "But he was out, so I had to think up my own." Her cartoon showed Sen. Edward Kennedy hurling bricks labeled "inflation," "Iran," "Unemployment," and "Energy Crisis" at President Carter. The caption: "They are your problems, not mine."
Quoting Kauffmann, Robin said her source was "divine inspiration."
A more immediate source of inspiration for the young cartoonists is their teacher.
Harmatz says she believes "children should be exposed to as much as possible" and she regularly pads the prescribed curriculum with the spontaneous and the unique.
Inviting Kauffmann to speak to her class, Harmatz said, was the impetus for the whole cartoon project.
"I though my kids would learn something from being exposed to him and his way of seeing the world."
Judging by the results, they did.
When Kauffman asked the students if any of them might want to become a cartoonist, at least half a dozen youngsters, who two days earlier had not known Herblock from "Dennis the Menace," enthusiastically raised their hands.