After working for a university for the past few years, I’ve become well-acquainted with the hectic and rapid change that is a New School Year. Being on the other side as a faculty member has meant that the transition and change I experienced from the first time I stepped on campus is a similar one I can see in my students.
As part of this process, I’ve also realized just how much information is thrown their way, whether it’s about campus or themselves. We do our students a disservice when we do not let or help them explore who they are, something that is integral to growth, meaningful change, and ultimately wellness in general.
So, that’s why I wanted to highlight a comic for “Health and Inclusivity“ that addresses these topics and more: Check, Please!
Check, Please!, created by Ngozi Ukazu and focuses on Bitty, or Eric Bittle, a young man in his first year of college who loves hockey and loves pies. While he is unsure of his place at a new school and away from home, he finds a way to connect with others while maintaining who he is at his core.
Around him is a slew of adolescent men just trying to find their way, too, when it all comes down to it. We may not see their internal workings, but it doesn’t take long to see they’re on their own journeys just like Bitty.
Starting a new school year is a huge deal. Even if you are continuing in the same place, you may have had experiences that fundamentally alter who you are.
Considering that identity development never stops, we have to think about what it’s like for children and adolescents to go through this process. As their cognitive skills develop, so does an awareness for who they are as people and how they fit into a larger world.
However, this time of turbulence can often be when symptoms of mental illness begin to arise or become apparent, in large part due to significant changes in a small amount of time coupled with enhanced insight. When we see young people work through this issues internally, it can be easy to dismiss their feelings as fleeting or temporary, forgetting that this point could be a vital point of intervention.
Where I feel like Check, Please! is helpful lies within Ngozi Ukazu’s ability to portray an experience of youth and an experience of queerness, both in synthesis and independently. It prompts a conversation of who people are and how they adjust.
Within this lighthearted comic is a meaning and an application that can aid young people in finding who they are and keeping that a constant, even as they experience regular shifts in life. Bitty’s specific battle is getting acclimated to being on a hockey team and avoiding getting checked, likely a similar experience to many athletes in college, or really just any student trying to figure out where they belong in a new environment.
Taking tests, writing papers, and going to class are part of the quintessential college experience, and many students react to them just as Bitty does to the prospect of getting hurt in hockey. Just like with Bitty, these new academic experiences may be tied to some sort of financial support and thus pose more pressure for students entering college.
What I tend to see is that there is a very quick reckoning about the nature of college and its distinction from high school. Unfortunately, what I don’t tend to see is an awareness of this reality. That is of no fault to my students or any others entering college for the first time; they may be so enveloped by the nature of change that it’s hard to step away and process.
We also live in a fundamentally punitive society that will cast you out if you don’t know what it thinks you should, even if it hasn’t taught you, but that may be a talk for another time. Regardless, Bitty’s own challenges are starkly similar to ones we discuss a lot on a college campus, and when they are intense enough, they stop students in their tracks.
For students who aren’t in college but moving to new levels of education, Bitty can still serve as a helpful avatar. Even across the span of twelve or so years, students of all ages are asked to pick up a host of skills very quickly. Luckily, a rapidly growing and changing brain assists them in this process, but it does not supersede the necessity of skill accrual. For students who experience mounting difficulties, we often see the fallout, especially when they do not have adequate support systems around them.
There is so much that we miss as the younger folks around us face barriers, chalking it up to them not being wise enough or needing to know from mistakes, because the more you’re away from that developmental period, the easier it is to write off children and teens’ concerns. Bitty’s ambivalence regarding being on the team or leaving college is too real a situation and too intense an analog for us to continue to do that.
This goes for any experience, but for students, when we don’t help them develop ways to understand their experience, they have fewer tools to help them during challenging times.
Unfortunately, that is another aspect of our society that is not helpful: the expectation that there is no problem and that when there finally is a problem it’s not treated as such because the expectation that there’s no problem at all. We see this dynamic play out with forms of marginalization and I see it time and time again in my work with students.
Creating the space to name and give form to what’s going on is an immediate game-changer. Bitty’s work through his issues and recognition of where they come from is incredibly helpful for him developing over the course of Check Please! Understanding that there’s a reason he doesn’t like to get hit or that he’s apprehensive about coming out to his team is monumental, and these experiences may feel small, but they build up into something much more grand and beneficial.
Beyond the general encounter students have with change, Bitty’s sexual orientation plays a pivotal role in the story. His past experiences have lead to him being reluctant to share this part of himself, and for good reason. Being trans or queer can be harrowing, regardless of geographical location, and it can be the line between staying in school or being forced to leave.
Seeing Bitty work through his fear of coming out, as well as Shitty’s response, is much closer to the affirmation LGBTQ youth need at any level of education or, really, existence. It also allows him to become much closer to his team, including taking a date to Winter Screw.
Navigating being trans or queer, particularly in places where there is little to no language around these existences, makes school significantly harder. It sucks to even type that out, but it is a disheartening reality that is still playing out for trans and queer youth. Most school systems are not adequately equipped to handle LGBTQ issues, some because they choose not to be.
However, with risks to safety as a result of disclosure, as well as common stigma, we do not always know who these students are, and therefore cannot always provide the structure or support that could be beneficial. Then, at the end of the day, we pretend there are no trans or queer kids because they didn’t tell us.
Any emotional difficulty is enough to stop any of us in our tracks, so to manage these difficulties alone out of a sense of self-preservation is a profound kind of loneliness that can make college seem like a wasteful expense.
Bitty’s ability to exist as he is turns the tides for him being a team member and ultimately being at college, due to the cost being mitigated by his hockey scholarship. He doesn’t become any different; he just is allowed the room to be open.
Thus, we can see his attitude change as well. Even though his sexual orientation is a relatively minor note in regards to the story, it still sends a message of what acceptance and support can look like. By giving LGBTQ youth a chance to see such a thing, Check, Please! may also be offering them solace when they have a hard time finding it elsewhere, if at all.
Still, Bitty’s visibility has caveats. Namely: whether with academics or being queer, not everyone has that experience. Black children and adolescents are treated significantly differently by the education system, and Black trans and queer children and adolescents do not always experience the kind of support their white (or non-Black people of color) peers do when coming out. Because of these factors, Bitty’s story may be helpful, but it may also present a reality that many Black children and adolescents do not get to experience.
In education, Black children and adolescents are much more likely to be punished for the behaviors that get their white peers a helpful diagnosis. We also see that many educational structures are not set up to address or mitigate specific issues Black students face. Institutions can pretend that by having diversity offices or student organizations geared toward Black folks they are meeting Back students’ needs, but there are so many dubious dynamics that lead to such a willful ignorance from white instructors or administrators.
Thus, without proper systems in place, Black students may face the same issues as white or non-Black peers, but with significantly less support in dealing with them.
When it comes to being queer or trans, Black children and adolescents may not always feel safe to explore who they are. Cultural primacy of masculinity coupled with specific relationships to religion within many Black communities very often results in views of being LGBTQ as being a ‘white’ thing, and that type of thinking still persists.
However, this does not make trans and queer spaces that are predominately white much safer. The experience of racism within the LGBTQ community is another issue that persists, often leaving Black trans and queer folks without a home unless they specifically make one themselves. So, for schools and college to be a way to escape familial homophobia or transphobia, they do not really provide a refuge from racism, leaving black LGBTQ folks at odds with many systems in place around them.
So, I appreciate Eric Bittle as a character and find him to be someone many people can relate to. Yet, I also see the drawbacks to him being a young white man. His experiences play out well (which, yes more happy queer and trans stories), but when paired with reality we see different outcomes if we change who Bitty is. In making these connections to our health, I’d be remiss to leave that fact out.
Still, I find Check, Please! to be remarkably applicable to the students I work with, even with my challenges to the story.
Dealing with any kind of change is going to throw us for a loop for an indeterminable amount of time. However, by looking at problems head on, giving them a name, and having support around us, we can find it easier and easier to manage that transition.
Bitty and Check, Please! give readers a taste of how to work through problems and adjust to a new environment as they start new years and academic journeys over the next few weeks.
While Bitty’s story may not fully reflect others’ experiences, it can at least offer some solutions for how to approach challenges when you are thrust into a new environment. Just like Bitty, many of the young folks in our lives are going to face challenges as they go back to school, and this comic, as well as the people around those folks, can help them Check! their issues as they happen.