With Fall 2022 having officially arrived just days ago, I find myself a little over a month into the new school year, my twelfth year teaching. Over the last decade I’ve gathered a few traditions to accompany the start of each new year. One of my favorites (and most helpful!) is a Spider-Man binge-reading session. Each year I pick a particular author and era (or two (or three or four)) and dive into the world of The Amazing Spider-Man. Teaching can be stressful and exhausting so, as summer falls away and work resumes, I find comfort in the familiar. I’ve had a longer relationship with Spider-Man than any other fictional character, getting my first Spidey comic when I was three-years-old and still loving him now. Plus, it’s nice to spend my night laughing when my days get harder and few characters have a better q.p.a average (quips-per-adventure, obvs.) than Peter Parker/Spider-Man. But I’ve realized there’s more to it than that. One of the most important reasons I turn to Spidey when school resumes is because of the ol’ Parker Luck.
Essentially, Peter Parker is the personification of Murphy’s Law within the Marvel Universe. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong…in the life of Peter Parker. Some superheroes have their lives a little more together. Some find a healthy life/work/superheroing balance. But not Peter. This year marks Spider-Man’s 60th Anniversary (yay!) and for the majority of those sixty years his life as Spider-Man has made almost every other part of his life a disaster. He regularly lives paycheck to paycheck, always struggling to make ends meet. It’s hard for him to hold down a job. His friends and family see him as an insensitive flake because he constantly arrives late, ditches early, or misses things entirely because he runs off to don his webs and battle baddies. More often than not he is a terrible romantic partner, even during much of the twenty years (in real time, not narrative time) he was married to Mary Jane. Peter always has more on his plate than he can handle so he can’t ever be fully present for anything so everything is always on the verge of crumbling (if not already a raging dumpster fire) around him.
I’m pulling Parker Luck examples in this piece from Zeb Wells (writer) and John Romita Jr. (artist)’s current run of The Amazing Spider-Man for two reasons. First, I’m loving this run and haven’t had the chance to write about it yet. Second, Peter’s life is pretty terrible (as per usual) but we, the readers, have no idea why. It’s a dumpster fire mystery! So drawing examples from this story means there are spoilers in this piece in regard to what’s going on in the plot but there are only partial spoilers as we don’t yet know what resulted in his life being such a mess. So, read on, dear reader, based on your comfort with such spoilers :).
To begin, let’s take a quick look at the day in the life of Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, when his Parker Luck is in full swing, shall we?
Should we question why he appears to be drinking coffee from some swanky coffee shop and not brewing his own? You don’t have a job, Peter. Maybe you should be more practical in your spending. But I’m not here to judge him. In fact, I love him for it. And these five panels are a perfect snapshot of why I turn to Spider-Man comics when the new school year begins.
Everyone needs that one friend whose life is always worse than yours. I’m being serious! It helps. Why? Because a) misery loves company and b) it’s nice to have a reminder that, no matter how bad things are right now, it can always be worse. One of the lessons living through 2020 taught me is you should never say, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse, right?” Because it can get worse and it often does. So when life is overwhelming or emotionally exhausting or physically exhausting or spiritually exhausting or just plan unrelenting or all of the above, it helps to have someone in your life you can turn to who’s life is harder. It makes you feel better.
That’s one of the beautiful things about Peter Parker. No matter how amazing a Spider-Man he may be, his life is always worse than mine. And I love him for it! (It’s worth noting I didn’t begin this fall’s Spider-Man binge-reading session with Wells and Romita Jr.’s run, rather I went back to Dan Slott’s “Spider-Man Worldwide” arc because seeing Peter run and then ruin a multi-billion dollar company, tanking his own life along with the lives of his investors (including Aunt May!) and employees (including friends like Harry Osborn and Anna Maria Marconi!) felt on point for what I was looking for in my reading.)
Over the last three years, teaching has become increasingly exhausting. It began before the pandemic but pandemic teaching and its aftermath certainly didn’t help. It’s like Covid sucked all the teaching energy out of me and I’m not really excited about it anymore. I could list example after example but I doubt you’d enjoy reading that and I don’t think it would be helpful for me either. So I’ll use one example to capture the weight teaching often drops on me. Last year we had a day long inservice with brilliant presenters. One of the points repeatedly covered was how detrimental screentime is to our students. The more we are online the more unhappy we tend to be, high schoolers included. So we were advised to do all in our power to be mindful of that fact, keeping our students offline whenever we can. We also had several faculty meetings last year stressing how everything we do – every assignment, every lesson, all our notes for class each day, every update we have to communicate, etc. – should be posted online.
Um…what? How do I hold those two goals together?? How do I care for my students’ mental, emotional, and spiritual health by keeping them offline as much as possible while making sure everything they do for my class is done online? Those goals can’t coexist. Thinking too much about it – which both my Part which holds My Anxiety and my Analytical Part like to do – leaves my head spinning. It’s a Sisyphean task.
Is it any wonder nightmares – terrible, raging nightmares from which I wake screaming in a tangle of my sheets – have become a nightly occurrence the last three years from mid-August through November or December?
So, yeah, seeing Peter Parker stumble through his life does make me feel better XD. And BONUS I feel really good that my friend who is always worse off than me, whose life is so bad I can find solace in their misery no matter how tiring my life may become, is a fictional character. I think I’d feel like an ass if it was a friend I had in real life who I took such solace from. In fact, my Caretaker part would probably want to help them leading to more work for me.
The catharsis-dispensing dumpster fire I’ve found so far in Wells and Romita Jr.’s Amazing Spider-Man has included seeing how something Peter’s done (something we don’t know yet!) has severely shaken, strained, or shattered his relationships with his most foundational natural supports. Aunt May is so hurt by Peter she can’t pretend to look away from his screw-ups anymore.
His one-time roommate and best friend Randy Robertson hasn’t seen Peter in months. Peter’s been absent for the good in his life – wanting to propose to Janet, his girlfriend – and his disappearance left Randy paying the rent on Peter’s place.
When Johnny Storm/the Human Torch comes to check in on Peter, Peter doesn’t even remember the horror Johnny’s life has become now that he can no longer control his flame powers.
In addition to ignoring his rent, Peter’s been unemployed so long he’s unable to pay his medical bills which has led to debt collectors waiting all day to catch him outside his place.
The money thing’s nothing new for Peter. That always flows from how he handles his life as Spider-Man. Nor, sadly, is stress in his relationships a new thing either. But seemingly screwing up so badly that Aunt May, Randy Robertson, and Johnny Storm are writing him off? That’s a new low, even for Peter Parker, Professional Flake.
But the revelation which hits the hardest in Zeb Wells and John Romita Jr.’s The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (Vol. 6) has to do with Mary Jane Watson. Nick Spencer’s run saw MJ and Peter finally find their way back to each other after being apart since the Brand New Day Era began in 2008. They were still together through the “Beyond” storyline that followed. Even though my five years of research and writing about Spider-Man’s love life has shown me how poor a partner and husband Peter regularly was to Mary Jane, my heart still leapt a little for them. Was this it? Was he able to learn from his mistakes? Could they be together again…but together in a healthy, mutually symbiotic way for the first time ever?? Was this finally happening?!!? I was cautiously excited.
And then this new volume of The Amazing Spider-Man begins and we learn Peter and Mary Jane have broken up. Not just that, but Mary Jane doesn’t even want Peter calling her.
Naturally, Peter does what she asks…and just lurks outside her new apartment instead. We see the pain, anger, and frustration play across Mary Jane’s face when she looks out and notices Peter standing on the street in the rain. We also learn Mary Jane’s living with someone new, a man named Paul. Then Wells and Romita Jr. deliver one of the most shocking twists I’ve ever seen in the pages of any Spider-Man comic!
Are you ready? If you’ve not read these comics you might want to take a few deep breaths to center yourself before you look at the following panels. Have you done that? Are you good? Ok, let’s do this together…
For me, few twists could’ve carried the emotional one-two punch this one did. Do you know the most unexpected feeling I had though? I’m happy for Mary Jane and I’m worried Peter’s going to mess up her new life. I saw those kids run into her arms and I thought, “Has she finally found a stable relationship with a partner who can care for her as much as she always cared for Peter? Is Mary Jane finally in a good place?” While I’m happy for MJ, I know this has to be a living hell for Peter. Few things, I think, hurt more than seeing the one you love with someone else. No matter how poor a partner Peter’s been to Mary Jane, he loves her (to be clear, Peter’s not a bad guy but he needs to work to heal the traumas and wounds within to find a path to being a more present partner). He may love her (to the degree he’s capable of) more than any other woman he’s ever met. So yeah, this has to be hell for Peter.
And I’m drinking it in baby! Hahaha, listen, I’m just being honest. Teaching can suck and it’s only gotten harder and harder over the last few years. But I’m not facing anything in my life quite as bad as what I’ve just laid out in Peter Parker’s life. Reading about his trials make mine feel easier by comparison. And I appreciate that! I’m not ignoring, minimizing, or invalidating any of the shit in my own life. It’s unhealthy to do that and ignoring the parts carrying those wounds only serves to make them react more to gain my attention. But – especially as I own and explore the full scope of what breeds months of nightly nightmares in my life – it’s helpful to have a reframe like Peter Parker’s life. Because misery loves company! And his reminds me it could always be worse.
I mean, for all the terribleness I’ve had to endure at work, I’ve never had a work experience like Spider-Man found himself in when he goes to face Tombstone to try and stop a gang war brewing across New York City.
Looking at that, even (most of) the parent emails that pop up and (most of) the admin requests made of us seem tame by comparison (to be fair, I don’t think this is just my school either; sadly I don’t know any friends teaching anywhere in the country who feel cared for or valued in their jobs right now).
But this isn’t just a literary exercise in Schadenfreude. Yes, I find solace in how the ol’ Parker Luck affects Peter’s life and that absolutely draws me to reread Spider-Man comics at the beginning of every school year. As my summer ends and my workload picks up again, it’s nice to see Spidey deal with way worse things than I do. There’s a catharsis in it. But the other side of the Parker Luck narrative shows no matter how bad it gets, it never keeps Peter down. Not forever. He always gets back up. So I think it helps to read stories about a character whose life is always worse than mine who also always endures those struggles, even when moments of relief are few and far between.
If Peter Parker can handle breaking Aunt May’s heart, letting down Randy Robertson and Johnny Storm again and again, being so behind on his bills that his bill collectors are harassing his family and friends, having no job prospects, getting his face smashed to a bloody pulp by Tombstone, all while the love of his life has children and a new relationship with another man, well, I can probably handle the emotional maelstrom teaching can be, too.
This fall in particular, my Amazing Spider-Man binge-reading session isn’t just bringing relief in the form of “misery loving company/it can always be worse” and/or seeing Peter endure and rise above all his life throws at him though. I’ve realized – just now, as I’ve been writing this piece in fact – it also validates the work I’m doing. It is Peter’s life as Spider-Man which rests at the root of almost all his personal and professional problems. It’s not being Spider-Man per se which causes these issues, but rather how he chooses to be a superhero. After all, no one else in the Marvel Universe (or the DC Universe for that matter) has quite the string of troubles he has with relationships and work. It’s the way he balances, or, rather, refuses to balance the various parts of his life that makes his time as Spidey such a stressor. Despite that reality, Peter still finds great relief in being Spider-Man. In fact, when everything else goes completely to hell, the only real moments of relief he can find often come when he’s in his Spidey suit.
Likewise, for me, there’s still a lot of joy I find in teaching. For all the issues which contribute to this overwhelming sense of dread which hangs like a pall over my life at the end of summer vacation and each Sunday night – an ever-increasing disconnect between faculty and admin, impossible tasks (like the online enigma I mentioned above), trying to reach students effectively after two years of Covid shaping the education process, endless loops of lesson planning and grading, a growing sense of student apathy, and inane emails (dear God…the emails) – there is so much I love about my job. And when I look at what fills the majority of my time between the hours of 7:30 am and 3:30 pm each Monday-Friday, I find more sources of joy than dread.
Most of what contributes to this pall work drops over my life comes when it bleeds into my nights and weekends, only touching relatively tiny slivers of my work day. Most of my day is filled with interacting with my students in class (and I love those discussions) and hanging out with Ashley and Theresa whose classrooms are right across the hall from my own. Ashley and Theresa are two of the people I love most in the world, people who stopped being “friends” and became family a long time ago. No matter what happens for the rest of my life, I know this – engaging with my students in the classes I teach with Theresa and Ashley right across the hall – will be the time I look back on as my glory days. This is the Golden Age. When I wander further up and down our hall, I only find more friends with whom I’m lucky to share my day. How can a day spent with Theresa and Ashley and getting to discuss material I love with my students cause so much dread? I spend far more time doing that than dealing with the shitty parts.
Realizing this feeling of dread is disproportionate with my day, Katherine (my therapist (who is an absolute Godsend and the best person ever)) and I have been working with it. For the first time in three years, the other fires in my life are small enough (some even extinguished all together!) that we can focus on work on its own. I’ve learned whenever we find a disproportionate emotional response like this in our lives, it’s often the result of a trauma being triggered. Is this dread born from a trauma experienced as my work environment has worsened over the last few years or somewhere else, somewhere earlier in my life? Only time will tell. Katherine and I are just beginning the journey inward to understand this part. I told Katherine I want to validate all that is hurting and wounded inside me. I want to be with whatever makes work feel as terrible as it does…but I don’t want to miss the joy. I want to savor the light, love, fun, and ridiculous hijinks which fill most of my day. As we’ve begun the early stages of getting to know this part which carries this sense of dread, I’ve already found some relief. I haven’t had a work-related nightmare in weeks!
All this is to say, Peter Parker finds a release and relief in being Spider-Man, even though being Spider-Man is the source of most of his personal and professional problems. He keeps repeating the same destructive actions so his life keeps getting worse. He is yet unwilling to address his own trauma and wounding so he can’t be Spider-Man in a way that causes less strife in his life. But I’m working on that! And it feels good – it feels validating – to see myself growing healthier than this superhero I’ve loved my whole life. I can’t stick to walls or lift a car over my heard but I do have the courage to journey inward and begin to heal those wounds which make my life harder than it needs to be.
The part of me that loves Spider-Man as a character so much wants to see Peter Parker do the same. After sixty years Peter deserves some of the peace and harmony true healing brings. But the part of me which understands the power of fictional characters wonders if that would defeat the point. Maybe so many of us have loved Spider-Man for so long due, in part, to the dumpster fire of his life. Maybe the fact that Peter never gets his act together is one of the ways he helps us. With the ol’ Parker Luck wrapping his life in struggle and grief, our misery always finds company in Peter Parker. He also becomes the friend who is always worse off than we are, in whose larger struggles we can find solace. Lastly, he is a companion and barometer for us on our own journey of our growth.
Before we’re ready to take the steps which lead to healing and growth in our own life, we can take comfort in seeing our lives reflected in Spider-Man. We needn’t be too hard on ourselves as even superheroes can be scared to do the same! And once we do reach the place where we are ready to turn inward and begin our own journey of healing, we can feel proud in knowing we’ve found the courage to go where even some superheroes fear to tread. I don’t know where my journey with work will take me this year but I do know it’s easier with Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, there beside me – thwipping, quipping, and reminding me things could always be worse. Thanks for being such a good friend, Spidey! You’re always there when I need you and you have been for me for over thirty years!
This piece has become the third entry in an unexpected trilogy where I reflect on work at the start of the school year. If you’d like to read either of those past posts, you can see where it began with Iron Man, Endgame, and the Thanos of Pandemic Teaching or see where I was last year at this time with Doctor Who, “Can You Hear Me?,” and the Nightmares of (More) Pandemic Teaching, a piece of which I’m particularly proud.