Advice for a young man needing some direction

This is a bit off-topic for the usual TDC fair, but I thought it might be a good opportunity to offer advice to a young man who appears to have some skill but lacks a direction or outlet. If you think you’ve got some good advice, leave it in the comments or it to me via email.

From an email I received earlier today:

I am a science teacher, and contacting you in the hopes that you could help provide me with a little guidance I could pass on to a student of mine. He is 16 years old, going into the 11th grade, and is known for sitting silently in class and flunking. Although he will barely speak and does no work, I have observed that he sits and does incredible drawings of what look to me like evil clowns. The drawings are mature and detailed. He does a couple each day in my class.

He probably will not graduate from High School. His parents are Spanish-speaking, but a relative explained to me that they are seeking both medical and psychological doctors to try to understand why he won’t talk or do school work. He will smile and listen to me when I speak, and sometimes respond with short answers, so I feel I have somewhat more of a connection with him than the other teachers do.

I would like to guide him toward a career in illustrations. I am a scientist and almost completely unaware of how to guide him. I searched for a book on evil clown drawings for him, and it seems this is an open market with none available. He has enough to fill a book, and his are better than most of what I have seen. Can he submit his drawings somewhere, or can his parents get him into professional drawing classes (with no HS diploma)? We are in the San Francisco Bay area.

As a scientist, I try to explain to the kids that they will be good at doing what they love to do. I am hoping this child’s skill can be used to salvage his life. He says he has no idea what he wants to do when he “grows up.” Any advice you would be willing to provide to me would be greatly appreciated, and utilized.

33 thoughts on “Advice for a young man needing some direction

  1. First off, he’s a lucky kid to have a teacher like that.

    Just based on this short description, I would suggest that rather than try to jump him all the way to published illustrator, some sort of internship or apprenticeship (muralist, tattoo artist?) would be better. If he submitted work and was rejected, it could be difficult for him to handle.

    Does his school have art classes? I know they’ve been cut many places, but it could be useful to understand how he fares in that environment. If he could show his work in any sort of local craft or folk art festival, that would offer a potential confidence boost.

    Is there any way to see a sample of his work?

  2. What a great post for discussion, Alan!

    With my trained high school educator hat on, you’ve set-off a few warning lights by mentioning “medical and psychological doctors” It sounds like this young man is an ESL (English as a second language) student, but there may be bigger issues either at school and/or home.

    Nevertheless, my first suggestion for this science teacher is to consider introducing his student to some of the staff and students from the Art department. Of course, that depends on the quality of the art department staff. The sad part is that there are some terrible teachers out there, so this could actually backfire.

    My subject background is communications technology/multimedia, so I can vouch that he might make a great candidate for this type of programme too.

    Another option is to get this young man involved in some extracurricular activities like drawing pictures for the school newspaper/blog or yearbook … Again, these are things I’ve been directly involved with as a teacher.

    But most importantly, we need to consider the issue from the student’s perspective. In all honesty, I was a VERY shy student in both elementary and high school. With hindsight, I can see why my parents and teachers tried to get me involved in the activities they did (cartooning lessons, yearbook, computer club …).

    If this science teacher is really willing to help this student, they might try finding a few local publications where the student can submit their work (ex. local community / recreation centres usually use graphics for advertising programs).

    Still, some students draw as a form of escape, and have a “leave me alone” wall strongly built around them. In those cases, the worst thing you can do is try to “break” that wall … You need to look for the door!

    Please feel free to forward this science teacher my email address if they’re interested in chatting directly, Alan.

  3. Not to be insensitive, but you need to speak, have a good attitude and most importantly, DO WORK, to be a successful illustrator, so I’d deal with those issues first.

    Secondly, I’d probably give up on finding a market for evil clown drawings. Is this kid looking to make a living drawing one thing for the rest of his life?

    I think this science teacher should be applauded for allowing his student to do a couple of evil clown drawings per day in his class rather than, I don’t know, LEARN SOMETHING and do homework!

    This kid either needs some major help or a good swift kick in the pants to adjust his attitude. I can’t really see how allowing him to flunk out of high school to pursue a career in evil clowns is helping him at all.

    He may draw great evil clowns, but the only clown this kid is going to have any experience with is Ronald McDonald.

  4. Sorry, but I forgot to mention that I previously taught at a vocational high school specifically designed for “special needs” and “at risk” students.

    In a few cases, I had students in my classroom for multiple periods of the day because it was the one class where they actually attended regularly and did work.

    But it can be very tough some days, so I can completely relate to this teacher’s situation, and applaud their efforts.

  5. As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I want to first offer this piece of advice:

    Make sure this kid does NOT attend The Academy of Art University in San Francisco. They have ads on TV all the time and absolutely prey on kids like this.

    Right now, the best thing is to get this kid some scholastic help to ensure that he graduates. And meanwhile, also get him involved in extracurricular activities like illustrating for the school newspaper or yearbook (like Mike Cope said), which will build his confidence–and portfolio.

    A kid who doesnâ??t talk at all and draws ONLY evil clowns seems like a big red flag. He might need to see a therapist, to make sure everything is okay. Then again, maybe heâ??s just a bit shy and digs drawing evil clowns.

  6. It sounds to me as though this soon-to-be young man may very well be autistic. It may have been a minor case that has gone undiagnosed, or developed late. This happens more frequently with boys, that they appear “normal” until more advanced language skills should happen. The family culture may also have played a part in being undiagnosed.
    The fixation on drawing repeated patterns are also typical, especially in milder cases where the parents find a calming hobby that replaces more dangerous behavior. Often, the drawing attempts to replicate an image that the person has like a slide show loop, only thre is just one image. ( The evil clown could also be a projection of how this fellow sees himself ).
    Not to be a dimestore analyst, but This should be investigated first, and confirmed or discounted, before any other “therapy” is applied.

  7. I agree in part with Stacy. I think this kid may need something more basic than career guidance. Assuming he is not autistic or does not have serious psychological problems (which would clearly require professional assistance), it sounds like he needs help accessing basic parts of his personality before anything else. The drawing ability will always be there.

    I’ve been teaching a kid’s class in Aikido for a couple years, and the coolest thing is to see when they make a real connection with the activity. When they start to get it, formerly shy kids become excited and formerly frail kids are rolling around with everybody else. Fun to see…

  8. What Kranky Joe said. I’m surprised it hasn’t been spotted; in fact it sounds downright odd that the teacher here is unfamiliar with the signs. You usually cover special needs very early as a beginning teacher.

    By the way, I have no idea what I want to be when ‘I grow up’.

  9. Wouldn’t his parents already know if he was autistic? I have several parenst that shop in my vitamin store for their autistic kids, and parents know at an early age when their child is autistic. It’s not like pimples that hit at puberty, they have it right out of the gate.

    Is the family new to the country? Where they seem to speak only spanish, maybe the kid is still trying to adjust to a new country? Maybe he’s homesick and feeling out of place? Is the kid harrassed in school?

    Too many questions off not alot of information about this kid. Drawing angry clowns seems like a way to vent about…something. The teacher needs to get him more serious help, I think. This kid needs more than an art school recommendation…

    …I hope I’m wrong and the kid is just going through good old fashioned teen angst and isoaltion, but…

  10. I’ve seen several “very quiet/silent” artists who were excellent illustrators, both in high school and college, so if you don’t know whether or not he’s autistic, than it’s not your job to diagnose him, and procede as if he was like everyone else.

    High school is extremely tough for some artists. You’re thrown in an atmosphere with a range of people and personality types, and looking back on it, I realize how over- whelming it could be for some people (yes, and for me). Luckily I had my core group of friends who really weren’t “my people” either, but who got me through highschool and I remain friends with today. I was much more at home with other artists at college. Once he’s in with his peers he might become more comfortable.

    You said:
    “He probably will not graduate from High School. His parents are Spanish-speaking, but a relative explained to me that they are seeking both medical and psychological doctors to try to understand why he wonâ??t talk or do school work.”

    Right now he has got to sit in a class with a football star in front of him, a class clown jerk behind him, the hot chick who never stops doing her makeup on his left, and the pot smoker who is just as quiet as he is, on his right. What do you expect the kid to do?

    I’ve seen a few cases of shell shocked artists that are still tramatized even after high school and college. And there are those still who, while they are social, tend to be withdrawn, and hermit- like when it comes to socializing with people they aren’t comfortable with.
    Not all artists are like this, but generaly, artists are not going to behave like your typical athlete, or cheerleader. Ever hear of Andy Warhol?
    Bill Watterson?

    If his parents are spanish speaking, I think it’s a safe bet his english isn’t great and he might be embarressed by that. That could also account for his poor grades. I bet when he goes home he speaks comfortably in spanish. I bet they can’t shut the kid up at home.
    You asked:
    “Can he submit his drawings somewhere, or can his parents get him into professional drawing classes (with no HS diploma)? We are in the San Francisco Bay area.”

    yes and no. Unfortunately what qualifies him for art school and what qualifies him for general college admitance are not one and the same thing. He could be accepted into a college’s art program, based on his artistic ablity and rejected by the college for poor grades and no hs deploma.

    I’d try to get him enrolled at a school like Cal Arts. Or some other art college where the typical bs doesn’t apply. A well rounded education is good and nice, but ultimately unnescessary. He needs to get familiar with Photoshop and illustrator, first and formost.

    Til then, try to give him artisic assignments other than evil clowns. At his age everyone has the thing that they draw over and over again. Some artists only draw pin up girls.

    He’s not crazy, it’s just what appeals to him the most.

    Ask him to draw what you want him to draw. I had detention around Christmas when I was 14 yrs old, my punishment was to draw Santa and reindeer on the chalk board after school.
    Ask him to draw the skeletal and nevervous system contained within a clown silhouette for science class. baby steps…
    The sad part about this is that he’s parents are out running around trying to figure out whats wrong with him… HE’S AN ARTIST! It’s a condition in and of itself! It comes with a lot of side effects, and unfortunatly some are struck harder than others.

  11. His parents need to be “parents”. Man, I hate when people don’t have the “balls” to raise thier kids properly. If you don’t want to raise them, don’t have them. This kids parents are the ONLY ones who can help him. Sad but true.

  12. “Ask him to draw what you want him to draw. I had detention around Christmas when I was 14 yrs old, my punishment was to draw Santa and reindeer on the chalk board after school.
    Ask him to draw the skeletal and nevervous system contained within a clown silhouette for science class. baby stepsâ?¦”

    That’s my thought. He has some other problems and probably not simply behavioral — Asperger’s seems likely, which would be very tough on someone living in one culture at home and another at school.

    Asking him to do illustrations for your use — reproducible or something you could use on a Smartboard — would help him start to integrate his talent with some kind of outreach into the world around him and the things he needs to learn to concentrate his mind on. Don’t necessarily ask him to work on the current curriculum — he may be too far behind, and he might find it hard at first to be singled out by having his work exhibited for his classmates, though eventually that could be a huge plus. But start him with the stuff you’ll need the next time you teach the course — it’s simpler and will also help him start to catch up. He may even know the stuff and not be able to express it in test format — you might be surprised at the details you assume he didn’t know.

    “His parents need to be â??parentsâ?. Man, I hate when people donâ??t have the â??ballsâ? to raise thier kids properly. If you donâ??t want to raise them, donâ??t have them. This kids parents are the ONLY ones who can help him. Sad but true.”

    Michael? Michael Savage! Hey, I didn’t know you hung around this board!

  13. “This kids parents are the ONLY ones who can help him. Sad but true.”

    I don’t think that’s true. How many of us here had a mentor art instructor or ANY teacher that helped guide us when fundamental skill was recognized?

    And yes it’s true that there are parents who are not parents at all and don’t help or care about their children. The one’s who don’t know where their kid is at 2 in the morning when the police are at the door looking for them as a suspect in some sort of dispute or crime. Believe me, It is seen every day here. And I’ve even written several strips about it.

    But from the limited information given in the letter posted here, I don’t think that is the case, and I applaude this teacher for trying to reach out and take an active role for this kid.

  14. Forgive my horrible punctuation and spelling mistakes in this last post. I was working all night LOL. I think I need one of those mentors now LOL!

  15. I saw an evil clown smoking a cigar on a tshirt yesterday down the Jersey shore. He might want to show his stuff to a T shirt company.

  16. It does also look like a Joker-related wind-up. But then I’m cynical by nature.

    Also, I taught English Lit’, and if I had a kid that age in my class doing nothing but draw clowns, I’d have called in special needs for an evaluation.

  17. This is just the kind of student we had in mind for the Lakeland Community College Comics Symposium’s companion Comics Contest — an event in which aspiring cartoonists can have their work reviewed and critiqued.

    The contest would be an opportunity for this student — it can serve as a goal to strive for (have an entry ready by late March) and will provide the student with honest, third-party feedback on their work. And, an additional upside is the student could win and really boost their confidence.

    Info on the 2009 contest will be posted at

    – Dominic
    Director, Lakeland Community College Comics Symposium Comics Contest

  18. I think I understand this kid’s problem.
    He’s not autistic.
    He doesn’t have mental issues.
    He’s pissed off.
    This kid is surrounded by failures….his parents and his teachers.
    His parents came to an English-speaking country and they can’t succesfully function as parents because they don’t know how to speak English.
    His teachers don’t give a crap whether he spends his school day drawing evil clowns or doing homework. It’s easy to see they’ve already given up on him. Even his Science Teacher is planning a future for him when he flunks out of high school. Mr. Science Teacher probably just wants him out of his class.

    Should we feel sorry for this kid and give him an award from Lakeland Community College? Hell no.
    His crappy situation should motivate him to do better.
    This kid should be pissed off enough to get good grades and draw something besides evil clowns.
    If you’re going to be pissed off, stop sitting quietly in the corner, drawing evil clowns and do something to prove to your parents and teachers that you’re better than they give you credit for. Stop whining and make a future for yourself.

    Turn that evil clown frown upside down, Junior.

  19. Has he always been this way? Then how did he get to 11th grade? He sounds like he is brand new to the culture and probably doesn’t have a good grasp on English since the only place he hears it is probably at school.
    He’s new in town and he doesn’t understand half of what’s said to him. That alone would push me to drawing evil clowns out of frustration. Drawing may be the one thing he feels he can understand and get a handle on and while he’s busy with them he can tune the rest of the world out. (I still do that during work meetings) If this is the case then he just needs extra help to adapt.

  20. Personally, I don’t think it’s fair (or appropriate) to analyze a kid based on a vague three paragraph summation of his life supplied by a third party.

    There really isn’t anywhere near enough information in the email to offer this kid any concrete advice, or diagnose any psychological/family problems he may or may not have.

    I wonder how this kid and his family would feel if they knew a bunch of random people on the internet were armchair analyzing his life based on a few sentences.

  21. Thanks Norm for bring it back to the issue. The issue isn’t if the kid is psychologically impaired – but what advice would you as a professional artist give a teen that has in inclination for the arts, but perhaps struggles academically?

  22. Make friends with other artists. Share ideas. Show your work to some tattoo and t-shirt guys. By all means dude, don’t give up on getting your diploma. If you need help, ask. I know school sucks, but you’ve only got maybe 2 years left. That’s like nothing in a life span.
    I guess that would be what I would want to tell him if I could, but not knowing what his circumstances are, well, who knows.

  23. We don’t have even a fraction of the information we would need to start to speculate about what this young man needs.

    Regardless of a person’s acumen for art, however, it is extremely important to master a wide range of disciplines and skills in order to function in society. I don’t know many cartoonists who aren’t also good at such unrelated fields as managing their finances, marketing, history, etc.

    Drawing should be encouraged, but not at the expense of math, science, English, and everything else.

  24. “We donâ??t have even a fraction of the information we would need to start to speculate about what this young man needs.”

    One of the rare times I disagree with my friend Ted.

    All we need to hear is that he’s 16 years old. The only thing one is prepared to do at that age in the real world is manual labor, and even that there needs to be constant supervision.

    And angry, underachieving kid from a screwed up family who likes to draw is the profile for 99% of us in cartooning. All he needs is encouragement to keep drawing and exposure to training in art. This is the R&D part for someone who wants a career in cartooning or as an illustrator, and it’s a part that takes many years.

    Ultimately, it’s up to him to find his way. You can help point the way, but it’s a long, difficult trip that he has to take, and no one can do it for him. And it’s that long journey that will make him a better cartoonist or illustrator.

  25. Clearly Norm, you have some issues regarding our qualifications. I can assure you I am indeed a fully qualified ‘armchair-analyst’ and I have a PHD from the Interweb Institue of Armchair Analysts of Bangalore – an intensive 6-day online course.

    Now. you use the phrase ‘random people’ to describe the posters on this thraed, which includes you. ‘Random’. ‘Random’, Norm. Just let the word settle…random…

    Of course it means a lack of order, purpose, cause, or predictability. And I have to say, given that about 95% of all cartoonsists (statistics backed by my fellow armchair alumni)are borderline Rainmen themselves, I think it was wholly predictable and in no way random that we would posit the hypothesis that we are faced with someone with similar afflictions.

    Doctor Rod, Assistant Head of Brainiacery, Bangalore Institute of Assburglers Syndrome.

  26. Here’s something isn’t true for everyone but I think is more true than not: the best cartoonists and illustrators aren’t necessarily the best artists. I knew kids like this in high school who were fabulous draftsmen but never developed any kind of careers after high school because, while they could draw, they didn’t have anything to draw *about.* That is, I think good and successful artists need to be good at other things–writing, science, politics, history, life, whatever–in order to express anything worth expressing. Otherwise, all they can do is make pretty pictures.

    However: telling this kid “hey, study hard in math and literature, they’ll make you a better artist” probably won’t get any traction. Once a kid that age gets on the “quit caring and drop out path” it’s hard to get them back on the road. Given that, my advice would be to take advantage of modern resources and technologies to get his work out there. Put it on the Web, start a Webcomic. Do mini-comics or a ‘zine; he’s lucky to be in the Bay Area, where there’s a thriving underground comix scene. The discipline of producing something plus whatever feedback he gets would be a big step.

    Encourage him to attend the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco this November, he will be sure to see two dozen people just like himself. (Maybe one of his parents could go along and be reassured that their son isn’t such a freak.) Encourage him to get his GED so that even if he doesn’t graduate he can go onto a good community college. I know a lot of kids who did lousy in high school but blossomed at a JC where they could follow their own passions, and JCs often have a more vocational, hands-on focus (e.g., Photoshop training) that would really help him out.

  27. I got about half a masters in education before realizing I’d hate teaching full time, but then put 13 years into working with schools and teachers, so I do speak the language, and I would say the teacher has given us a pretty good encapsulation of what’s going on with this young man.

    Of course, we can only respond based on the teacher’s report and so it’s naturally incomplete and tentative, but (1) the kid is doing nothing in his classes — not making that burst at the end, not goofing around and disrupting things — just tuning out and flunking, and (2) his parents are seeking medical and psychological help. So it’s not like he’s functioning anywhere else, it’s not like his folks aren’t aware and concerned. Something is going on here.

    What throws me off is that he’s apparently able to have some kind of conversation with this teacher, though he doesn’t know what he wants out of life. That’s why I think, if he’s on the autism spectrum, it’s at the more functional end of Aspergers rather than in Rainman territory. I suggested the teacher ask him to do some illustrations for the course, for two reasons.

    One is to help him see that he can channel his talent into a potential career and the other is to see if he is able to draw more than evil clowns. Autistic kids fixate on certain things, but he may just be an Insane Clown Posse fan. And I’d like to have someone other than a science teacher evaluate the work, because there’s a difference between long practiced doodling and the kind of eidetic reproduction some autistic artists can come up with — total detail from a brief glance.

    In the end, however, it doesn’t matter if he’s full-blown autistic, Aspergers, clinically depressed or just chronically pissed off. He’s flunking, his parents are concerned and he’s apparently willing to talk about it, though not able to simply change his pattern. Encouraging him to draw the subject matter can have a couple of benefits —

    1. Break him out of the cycle of overall failure. If he’s going to change his pattern, this might be a way to do it — get him to draw something for someone else instead of just amusing himself.

    2. Help him start to learn. I’ll bet there are people here who, as students, liked the assignments where you could draw a poster or create a diorama instead of writing a paper. But beyond preference, there are students who really don’t absorb information very well in written form. Help him break through a little and he may be able to tackle the written form, just as, when you start working with a new computer program, the manual then begins to make more sense to you than it did when you were looking it over straight out of the box.

    3. Show him that the thing he enjoys has some wider application. Whether he becomes a cartoonist or an illustrator or simply someone who creates really good reports and proposals, it’s important that he not see a wide gulf between what he enjoys and what the world will reward him for.

    That’s not armchair psychology — that’s practical advice even if the teacher is missing some of the details. Which, of course, he likely is. But my guess is that he’s got the basics nailed and I hope we’re not his only source of input anyway.

  28. Maybe the kid draws to relax. Maybe he doesn’t want to be pushed into drawing evil clowns for a living. Maybe he’s got enough stress in his life than making a hobby into a career.

    This teacher should focus on his education. The teacher thinks because a kid can draw he doesn’t need to be able to read, write or speak? Not even mentioning contracts, these are day-to-day skills everyone needs. Obviously. Well, obvious to everyone but his teachers.

  29. Let me just add one last thing – we don’t even know if these are original concepts. Maybe he’s replicating an album cover over and over. I used to know plenty of kids who would draw one thing over and over (The Simpson’s for example) but they couldn’t draw anything else.

  30. I wonder how this kid and his family would feel if they knew a bunch of random people on the internet were armchair analyzing his life based on a few sentences.

    His rents can take this up with his teacher. He’s the one that asked for assistance. And it’s not our fault that we only got a few sentences. We should get credit for making the lemonade from the limited lemons we were supplied.

    For future potential seekers of advice here at the TDC, we should come up with a questionaire that would provide the random folk here more 411 to formulate their armchair POV’s with…

    …and speaking to Jay’s point, when I was in high school in the late 80’s, drawing evil was just plain cool! Eddie from the Iron Maiden covers, Motorhead, Slayer…any band that had evil-style artwork was what bwe drew because it rattled our teachers and parents cages!

    On the questionaire, we should ask what music the person listens to…

  31. “His rents can take this up with his teacher. Heâ??s the one that asked for assistance. And itâ??s not our fault that we only got a few sentences.”

    No, but we can always decline to give advice based on those facts. Just a thought.

    “We should get credit for making the lemonade from the limited lemons we were supplied.”

    The types of comments that sparked my comment:

    “This kid is surrounded by failuresâ?¦.his parents and his teachers. His parents came to an English-speaking country and they canâ??t succesfully function as parents because they donâ??t know how to speak English.”

    “It sounds to me as though this soon-to-be young man may very well be autistic.”

    “His parents need to be â??parentsâ?. Man, I hate when people donâ??t have the â??ballsâ? to raise thier kids properly.”

    Really? Three paragraphs and the kid is diagnosed with autism, has lazy foreigner parents, and a teacher who’s a failure and just wants to get rid of him? That’s some bitter lemonade.

    “For future potential seekers of advice here at the TDC, we should come up with a questionaire that would provide the random folk here more 411 to formulate their armchair POVâ??s withâ?¦”

    Yes, your hyperbole is delicious. Duly noted. We don’t need his life story before we dare to speak. But my intent wasn’t to offer up a blanket rebuke to everyone here. I was just pointing out that the extrapolation some are using in diagnosing this kid’s problem is unfair and/or premature.

    And despite the hang ups over my use of the word “random”, I stand by it. I think we are fairly random people to ask advice of regarding a withdrawn student who is flunking out of school. The fact that he’s artistically inclined doesn’t automatically qualify us to be his life coach.

  32. Norm, bro’…the bulk of my post was just a goof. A questionaire? No way was I serious…I agree that we are random, albeit sexy peeps, and that we shouldnt armchair quarterbacing this kids mental and artistic state.

    And BTW…next time your in Framingham/Rte. 9, stop in to the British Beer Co.! They just opened and the food is great and they have a beer menu that stretches 2 pages!!! WHOOO-HOOO!

    My vitamin store is right next door, so stop in first and grab me and we’ll get drunk and gossip about all the other TDC alum(shhh…between youse and me)

    So shoot up 495 and let’s raise hell and drink beer!

  33. “Norm, broâ??â?¦the bulk of my post was just a goof”


    Well, it’s entirely possible that I’m just full of piss and vinegar. My bad.

    I do agree that we’re sexy. Every one of us.

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