KAI TEXEL vividly recalls the lockdown drills staged at her New Jersey high school. “We’d hide under desks, turn out the lights and lock the doors,” she said. “I remember having surprise ones multiple times a year. It was a part of life.”
Texel, who graduated from High Point Regional High School in Sussex County in 2012, is now a cartoonist, and she used those lockdown memories to help fuel her new webcomic, “Be Heard!,” in which two friends discuss how best to speak out.
Ahead of Wednesday’s National School Walkout to protest gun violence — exactly one month after 17 people were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla. — the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the National Coalition Against Censorship are trying to help safeguard students’ rights by publishing “Be Heard!”
Texel’s free comic outlines “best practices to help kids assert their rights to speech, protest, assembly and petition, warns about risks and provides resources,” according to the CBLDF — including the planned 17 minutes of silence Wednesday on many campuses to memorialize the 17 Parkland lives lost.
“I made the comic and hoped that it would help students utilize their voices in an effective manner,” Texel said Monday via email. “They deserve to be heard, and the comic provides some guidelines as to what are generally accepted forms of protest in most schools.”
In the comic, friends Audrey and Emma are making signs, even as Audrey is discouraged from writing a profanity on hers. “Respect, organization, clarity” are highlighted as keys to a successful protest.
“I feel like I’m more like Audrey — in high school, I’d probably try to pull a bold stunt like the f-word on the sign — and I wouldn’t have had the foresight that Emma has regarding the consequences,” said Texel, who notes that her palette is inspired by such animated shows as “Steven Universe,” “The Regular Show” and “Adventure Time.”
“I am against censorship,” the cartoonist continued, “but it’s important for kids to know that they’re still in school and should remember to follow school policies.”
“People often forget that students are citizens with the same First Amendment rights as adults,” said Charles Brownstein, executive director of the CBLDF, an Oregon-based nonprofit that fights to protect First Amendment rights. “They often bear the brunt of censorship, both in what they choose to read and in how they choose to speak out.”
Brownstein said his hope is that “Be Heard!” helps “the students who are actively shaping the national debate” on gun violence.
One former high school educator who supports the spirit of “Be Heard!” is Gene Luen Yang, the graphic novelist (“Boxers & Saints,” “American Born Chinese”) who served as the Library of Congress’s national ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
“Like pretty much every other teacher I know, I have been impressed and inspired by the young people from Parkland,” Yang told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “National School Walkout is a way for students across our nation to find their voices.
“Free speech is foundational to our society, but it’s surrounded by a tangle of complexity,” Yang said. “The CBLDF comic aims to guide young people through that tangle.”
As for Texel, she said she also supports the March For Our Lives planned for Washington on March 24.
“I think our priority should be on protecting students,” she said. “It is a brave and powerful thing for so many kids to come together and make a stand against violence.”