Archive | September, 2012

Post-strike. Post-modern. Post-mortem.

26 Sep

1.

After just one day, the strike seems like some strange, hazy thing that happened to other people. The scope and size and sizzle of it, the drumming singing dancing chanting rally cry, the physicality of it, the get in the streets aggressive civil disobedience of it, and the white lightning energy of the thing, it all seems like some rogue spirit of the 1960s that possessed us all for a few days and then floated on back to the historical ether.

I wake up at 5. I stretch, read, make breakfast porridge and drink coffee. Simone sits on my lap for a few minutes and we watch the sky lighten out the back windows. I brush my teeth, bike to work in a chilly wind that resists my pedaling the whole way.

The students are not resentful or angry. They’re happy. The parents don’t yell or throw things at us or even give us dirty faces. They say hello and wave and offer up big smiles. They’re happy, too.

I ascend the stairs to the library and shoot up the shades. A few things seem out of place, some of the chairs have been moved, but otherwise the library is unchanged.

The staff meets in front of the school, everyone wearing red. The idea was to re-begin the year with solidarity in our hearts. I’m late, and sort of half walk in with everyone else.

And just like that—as if the strike hadn’t happened—we’re back.

2.

I wanted to end my rambling essay on the strike with some killer writing, the same lived in attention to detail that consumed my thoughts during the strike.

But I can’t offer up the same minute to minute details, the conversations, my own drifting thoughts. I’m too tired, I’m preoccupied with my return to work, and the expositional needs of the wrap-up are many. Thousands of other writers can do this sort of thing better than me, but I lived through it, I’m up on the issues, and I’ve read much of the commentary, both before, during and after.

So here goes. The post-strike post-modern post mortem. Hold on to your butts.

The problems in Chicago’s public school system haven’t been fixed. The worst schools remain in the poorest neighborhoods. These are the schools that will, if the mayor gets his way and I have no reason to believe he won’t, be shut down. Charter schools will move in—often placed in the same building the old public school used to operate in—and the mayor can wash his hands of the whole affair.

Charter schools are held to lower standards; they often game the system by ejecting lower performing students and therefore appearing to do better than they actually do; and they are staffed almost uniformly by non-union teachers.

So the lowest educational areas in the city, which correspond to the poorest areas in the city, will have their children taught by teachers being paid less, in schools with less scrutiny, less support, and less state and federal funding.

And this is supposed to be a good thing.

It’s some type of bizarre shell game where everyone knows it’s rigged, but no one can quite figure out how the barker keeps up the con. Everyone knows this privatization thing is racist, but no one is quite sure how. It’s difficult to see through the murk. The “reforms” sound good, because if we call it reform—reform’s a good thing, right?—then we can ignore the racism made manifest by the mayor’s policies.

To his credit, the mayor I’m sure (mostly) believes that charter schools are the answer. But this is the scaffold—the howling crazy ghosts in the psychological sub-basement—that he’s bought into to protect his psyche from self-harm. (Mitt Romney has a similar scaffold in place, the idea that capitol should morally be taxed at a lower rate than labor. The fact that this moral good accrues millions of extra dollars a year to his bank account is simply a collateral benefit. His philosophy just happens to benefit him.)

But Rahm’s good intentions, and I’m being supremely generous here, mean nothing in the face of his hurtful policies.

He has powerful allies in this education reform movement, including the world’s richest man.

These bad guys rooting around in public education are a deep-pocketed and influential bunch. There are two major strands to these “reformers.” The first is the privatize everything people, such as the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. These subscribers to the libertarian philosophy have a simple answer to all the world’s problems: privatize and let the free market do its moral magic. They cherry pick from history for examples of success, and totally ignore their horrifying, misery-inducing failures (Chile, Argentina, Zambia, Indonesia, the list goes on and on). Their answer to the problems of public education in the U.S.? Shockingly, privatize and let the free market do its moral magic. They want universal private school choice. They want nothing less than the total dismantling of public education. They want to plunge us even further into a corporate mindset, where everything runs on (a deeply flawed) cost/benefit analysis, everything except their own profits.

And they are called reformers.

The second group is the anti-union people, like StudentsFirst, led by Michelle Rhee. They are a well-funded lobbying group strangely obsessed with teacher tenure, seeing it as the major obstacle to students doing well. As opposed to smaller class sizes, access to cutting edge materials, or even pushing for teaching to be a professional advanced degree. Nope, just tenure. Get rid of it, pay teachers less, and the quality of education will improve. Dispose of tenure and pollution will decrease, worldwide unemployment will disappear and people will begin to read novels again.

3.

Back to Rahm, and his ease with the knock-around politics. The day we went back to school he began running ads saying that, because of the new contract, 100 to 150 neighborhood schools would have to close to pay for it. This is a cynical and disingenuous claim. One of the major reasons we went on strike in the first place was to protest the closing of neighborhood schools. (We used the aegis of teacher recall—where highly rated teachers from closed schools would have first crack at new job openings—as a way of addressing this issue. Like so many other things, we’re not allowed to strike over school closings.)

We expect cynicism from our politicians, but goddamn, this is extreme. Rahm is laying the blame on the teachers for bringing about the thing he’s been promising to do since elected. It’s heinous, and he should be lambasted for it. Plus, the money being spent on this tacky, public victory lap could pay for some of the very things we went on strike for to begin with.

“He won. He won. I love him,” C. says as we stand outside waiting for the official start time. The students know the drill. They stand near their lineup areas and listen to music through their handhelds, rap, pass gossip, flirt, inhabit the awkward end of adolescence with gaudy aplomb. A few wave, but most of the eighth graders try their best to look insouciant and uncaring.

C. is our security guard. He’s conservative politically but in an unpredictable way. Two weeks earlier he confessed to me that he hated the mayor. That he said “screw you,” to him at some Puerto Rican fundraiser. So this newfound love is a put-on, a gag, a dig. He loves to watch me get annoyed when he says a bunch of nonsense. “He’s going to close all those schools,” C. says.

“You don’t even like Rahm,” I say as Daryl laughs.

“I love him,” C. says. “He won. He beat the teachers. Ha!”

“Those neighborhoods will have to organize and protest,” I say. “We can’t use the strike to save them all. It’s too large and unwieldy a weapon.”

“You guys should have kept the strike going,” C. says, in a moment of rare candor. “Maybe you could have helped keep those schools open.”

“Maybe,” I say.

4.

It’s late and a school night and instead of reading or writing or watching a movie I foolishly begin reading various news agency’s response to the strike. It is a profound waste of time. Very few people seem to understand the core issues. Numbers are misrepresented. The union gave huge concessions on some issues that people outside of education don’t understand. For instance, we can now only bank up to 40 sick days. After that, we aren’t paid for them, they just disappear. This is fine, but if a teacher misses a day, the system has to pay a substitute to do the job. Even strong substitute teachers—not so rare but not so common either—create a disruption in the classroom.

So a teacher missing a day costs the city extra money and hurts the students, if only in small ways. So teachers should be encouraged not to take sick days. The old way had problems, too, I admit; some teachers would save up a year’s worth of sick days and then take the payout of those days at their retirement, at a much higher rate. I don’t advocate this, either. My point is now teachers have to use them or lose them. CPS has incentivized teachers into taking their sick days, instead of offering a reward to teachers who don’t take them. And the hidden costs of substitute teachers—not figured into any budget that I know of—is real.

The union also signed on to a health initiative. Every month I have to click a button on a website that says I’m physically active. If I forget, I get fined fifty bucks. This applies to Beth, too, as she’s on my insurance, and will apply to Simone at some point. We were given the opportunity to opt out of this health initiative—I don’t know why they don’t call it what it is, a monthly fine—for a flat rate of $600.

We also fought for textbooks for the students on the first day of school and smaller class sizes, both of which, incidentally, make students learn better. Are we praised for our attempts to help our students? No. In fact, the web chatter holds this against us, too, saying that we don’t really care about the students, we just put this language in there as window dressing.

We took merit pay off the table, thank god. We also reduced the evaluative power of standardized test scores. “Reformers” see the testing as a metric to see if a teacher is effective. Teachers see the testing as a biased and unreliable waste of time. It can only gauge a narrow range of things, and even these it does poorly. Finally, merit pay necessarily punishes teachers who choose to work in tougher areas of the city. Even testing student growth in some part of the city, where students experience immense regression over the summers, is biased and unfair.

Anyway, here’s a roundup of the first blast of critics, bloviators, and blowhards.

Stuffed shirt James Warren—of Newsweek (a magazine which, as I wrote in an earlier post, used far-right National Review editor Rob Long! to write about the teachers’ strike), and the Daily Beast— hides beneath a measured tone while giving a skewered view of the strike fallout. He calls the union “change-resistant.” He says that “reform” groups, and there’s that word again, were disappointed with the contract. He argues that the system has to shrink else it isn’t sustainable. He provides arguments that appear to be logical, but they aren’t. He is echoing Emanuel. The city is broke, the school system is too expensive, the teachers should feel lucky they have jobs. He reveals his hand, however, when he promulgates the bright and shining lie with this whopper: “The teachers, who now average about $74,000 a year and cost the system in the vicinity of $100,000 with benefits, will continue to ravenously suck up most of the system’s cash.”

My God, the horror.

First off, this number is flawed. It involves the pension pickup—imagine if someone factored in some of your future social security as part of your pay (and most Chicago teachers know that the pension money won’t all be there in twenty years)—and is still inflated. We should make this much, but most teachers don’t. I’ve heard the reason this number is so high is CPS is gaming its own system by including administrators who have teaching degrees into the average teacher pay. (They earn much higher salaries, in the $125,000+ range.) In fact, the average pay being reported is sneaking up. Two separate sources yesterday said that the average teacher salary in Chicago, under the new contract, will be $100,000. I wish someone would tell my bank account.

Second, and when sober Warren would admit as much—if he could pause from kissing his own rectum for a few seconds to open his syphilitic eyes—public school teachers are not rich. Most teachers work a second job in the summer or teach summer school. Many (I’m tempted to say most, at least at my school this is the case) teachers have to augment their salaries with after school tutoring. How many people in the city of Chicago, making $76,000, have to work a second job?

Warren’s line of thinking is hugely problematic, but I’ll only focus in on this. The city offers tax breaks to enormously wealth businesses—as well as tif money legally skimmed off the public education tax money, the real vacuum ravenously sucking up the system’s cash—to stay in Chicago, but gripes over modest pay raises for teachers working at advanced degrees within their profession. Utter madness. It’s blame the teachers all over again, ignoring the fact that the worst schools are in the bad neighborhoods, and the schools in the wealthier areas rank up as some of the best in the state.

If you want to throw up in your mouth, read it here.

The BBC gets much closer to the reasons behind the strike, placing the whole thing in an international context. Check it out.

Slate is right on the money as to why Chicago’s system is struggling, and if you’re only going to read one article, read this one.

And the Socialist Worker, which I never read, delivers up a hearty humming pump your first in the air victory lap on the strike here.

And after reading these articles and more, after a bout of angry dyspepsia and a spike in my blood pressure, after getting the taste of self-righteous blood in my mouth, I was no better informed, nor was I happier, so around midnight I had to let the whole thing go and try to drift off to sleep.

5.

One thing I learned from the strike is that we are, as a country, starved for causes to fight for. There’s a notion that all the worthwhile battles have been won. This with systematic voter disenfranchisement and the re-segregation of our public schools happening right out in front of our eyes and out in the open.

We haven’t progressed. We’ve regressed.

We’re backsliding. We’re teetering. We’re fragmenting. We’re fighting battles we thought were won back in the 1950s.

We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking the world is a better place. The technological bells and whistles have consistently blinded us to the misery most of the world lives with every day. Worse, the technological bread and circuses have blinded us to the blight and poverty and destitution in our own country, in our own backyards.

We’ve confused entertainment with quality of life.

We have Dwight Eisenhower reincarnate as the president and his challenger paints him as some fire-breathing Marxist.

A sensible healthcare overall, where individual risk can be sublimated and shared by everyone and save money in the process, is libeled with death panels and socialism.

After the worst oil spill in history blankets the Gulf Coast with toxic oil, people living in these ruined coastal towns call for less regulations.

Briefly, the strike awakened the community-minded little radical that lives in my chest. (He fights with the tiny libertarian who hammers away at my spleen.) Every teacher I spoke with saw the strike in terms of inequality and civil rights. In the streets and on the picket lines, we felt like we could change the world. The marching and the rallies and the political social economic arguing and the process felt so vibrant and alive.

I just don’t know if the civic awareness of the strike, the progressive spirit, can be replicated. I’m too busy, we’re all too busy, there’s so little time to sit and think.

6.

It’s night and Beth knocks over a half-full bottle of olive oil onto the kitchen floor. The crash startles Simone. Beth cannot pick up the glass without first cleaning up the olive oil; its slick, viscosity makes it almost impossible to sweep up the shards of glass. But she cannot clean the olive oil up until she has removed all the glass; the glass is sharp, and cuts one of her fingers. She leans over the lime green pool of liquid creeping towards the wall. The situation seems hopeless.

“Mommy, why’d you knock that over? Come on, mommy,” Simone says.

Beth gingerly wipes at the spill with old rags. She then tosses them into a large black plastic bag. It’s arduous work, and Beth soon is angry. Simone keeps saying, “Mommy, why’d you do that? That wasn’t smart.” I’m holding the black plastic bag, waiting, trying not to laugh at Simone’s commentary while Beth grows more and more annoyed. I offer to help but Beth wants to clean it up herself. I understand, but I’m forced to watch, and listen to Simone gripe about the mess.

We can’t fix the school system until we fix poverty. And we can’t fix poverty, without first fixing the (poorer schools in the) school system. It’s the chicken and the egg. The oil and the glass. There isn’t an easy solution, there can’t be. People saying otherwise haven’t worked at the frontline, in the classrooms.

Like healthcare, we have two public school systems in our country. One is top notch, the best in the world, churning out the best and brightest, super-educated people to the top schools in the country who go on to become professors and writers and scientists and experts and lawyers and bankers and the like. The other is squalid and miserable, a failed social experiment that loses students to the streets and graduates others at excruciatingly low reading levels and doesn’t have textbooks or computers or even enough desks and it’s a simple containment system in the worst schools, the students are being sent to keep them from committing crimes in nicer neighborhoods, and the explanation for this tiered system is the explanation for everything bad in this country, the soul-destroying condition of poverty.

To speak of the failures of Chicago public schools without discussing poverty and racism is to deal with the effects while ignoring the cause.

7.

It’s now eight days after the strike and I’m still holding onto the anger. The mayor continues to run his attack ads blaming us for the strike and for the upcoming school closings. The papers continue to inflate our salaries and deflate our accomplishments. If the trend continues, soon our average salary will be $250,000. Every public school teacher has a company car, unlimited paid passage on international flights, a new designer wardrobe every six months.

Inside the schools, we bustle about with the demands of the job and an internal, self-righteous ire. Outside, we move through a constant harangue, with resentment in our hearts.

I started yelling on the sidewalk today, yelling at people who were agreeing with me. The political undercurrents of the strike damaged one very close relationship and put a strain on half a dozen others. Most of my family and friends stayed quiet on the issue, leaving me alone. A wise decision.

“I’m glad I’m on your side,” my neighbor says, and moves along.

And again I’m slowly pulled back into the rancorous web ether. One article after another misrepresents the teachers’ union. Now we’ve ruined the city. Now we’ve bankrupted the state. Now we’ve quadrupled the national debt. Now we’ve assassinated half of the United Nations and dumped arsenic into Canada’s water supply. Now we’ve detonated a nuclear weapon in the New York subway system. Now we’ve released some anti-life sickness into the Milky Way and negated all of existence.

Time to put the thing to bed. I’ve written enough about politics. My dark imagination wants to run rampant, untethered by facts. (I’d make a good politician.) I don’t like it, I don’t like the factual demands. It’s elongated my anger. I’ve been too preoccupied to do the type of writing that makes me feel alive.

So my coverage of the Chicago teachers’ strike hath ended.

Go now and weep no more.

The strike is over. Long live the strike.

Simone and me on the last day of the strike. (Photo by Hal Eskew.)

The strike hath endeth.

18 Sep

The strike is over. Details to come. A post-mortem will be forthcoming, but for now it’s time to prepare for work.

 

Day nine of the strike and we engage in the waiting game.

18 Sep

1.

The day begins with a whimper. I nudge Simone awake as I have to take her to the picket line. She asks me to let her sleep, which never happens, then gets up and eats some oatmeal. I eat some, too, but it tastes too sweet in my mouth.

She insists on taking her purse and her bunny and her crocodile. I forget the crocodile. I also forget a diaper, just in case, and her water. I have to double park and run back up. Feeling frantic; I hate being even a minute late.

We drive to work and listen to music. Simone gets frustrated when I listen to the news, and makes her opinion known through two basic strategies. The first is to dig her feet into the back of my seat, and alternate with hard kicks to my kidneys. The second is to scream. Both are effective. Her tastes run to top forty. We hear Pitbull. We listen to Ellie Goulding. We dance to Flo Rida. We arrive at school in style.

Most of the staff is there. Liz gives an update. It’s the whole gang in the chilly sunlight and Hal takes some photos.

We discuss the upcoming vote. As a school we give Liz our proxy. Do as your conscience demands. She’s been a heroic, tireless, self-sacrificing presence in all of this, a real leader for our staff. We trust her.

Daryl brings donuts, gets a cheer. Opening that gate leads to binge eating and self-loathing. I pass.

Simone plays with Melissa’s i-phone. A fourth grader comes along and sits next to her. We don’t picket or canvas or even do much discussing. We’re engaged in the waiting game. The power is, temporarily, out of our hands. The mood isn’t negative or anxious, but it isn’t calm and happy either. It’s most akin to a stoic resolve mixed with boredom. We’ll stay the course, but don’t expect us to sing about it. Not today.

Simone plays coy. She doesn’t run around or talk much. A quiet calm alien has changed places with my child. I don’t mind.

It’s cold and getting colder. The sun offers little heat. There’s little for us to do. Daryl cranks up the music in his car. He starts with “Otis.” He flips it to Chaka Khan. It livens up the atmosphere. But the music can’t last. A neighborhood dogwalker gives one of us a funny face and he turns the car off to avoid any controversy.

We wait. We do not whistle. We don’t work, although we want to. A few students walk by. No one brought cards. A few people make signs for the return of the students. I’m itching to do some writing but with Simone I left my notebook in the car.

A colleague compliments my buddy Bill on his looks, his passion. I inform her he’s married. She pretends to be crushed, then laughs.

I wear a yard sale jacket of vaguely Mongolian design. It’s too big and offers little warmth. I only wear it to appear tough and soldierly. A hard-scrabble survivalist. A burly carry a hatchet kind of guy. Meanwhile, I’m cold.

I move from foot to foot. So do the others. Some of the staff sit under blankets. We are unsure of how to proceed. We want to be here for each other, but we’re now at the endgame. There’s no advantage to picketing when the contract is almost complete.

“Can we go home now?” Simone asks. I look around, see nothing to do but wait. Wait and worry. Stand in the cold with my soon to be three year old daughter.

We stop to get a hot chocolate on the way home. There’s a teacher in the coffee shop. He says, “It’s been strangely boring and thrilling at the same time.” I agree. We hit the same points—school closings bad, racism in the system, money being siphoned out of public education, and so on and so on—shake hands and go on our ways.

2.

I’m jittery as hell from too much coffee and I can feel my blood cells forming molasses clusters beneath my skin. Too much caffeine not enough food and the feeling runs towards the desperate. If I don’t eat in the next five minutes, I’ll die. My stomach will collapse. My clavicles will detach. My face will slide off my skull.

I eat leftover soup mixed with quinoa and avocado. It tastes good but I’m too nervous to notice. Do we return to work tomorrow or not? No one knows. The strike, independent of all the politics, is a glacier. It does not move quickly. The mechanisms for stopping it are complex. Some teachers naively thought we would be back in our classrooms after one day. I expected two and a half weeks.

A cut opens up on my finger. I never do this, but today I put the bloody knuckle to my lips. The taste is metallic and bilious in my mouth. Is that what blood tastes like, or only mine? There’s an experiment I’ll never perform. I’ll always be left wondering.

Simone goes to the park with Beth and Pearl. I write two letters to WBEZ people. I’m 100 percent right in one of the letters, 100 percent wrong in the other. I wrote Linda Lutton based on something my wife thought she heard. She heard incorrectly. I’m embarrassed, but Beth is mortified. Her shame quickly turns into a new running joke.

I wrote Steve Edwards about his artful dodges of criticism aimed at the mayor. He doesn’t respond.

I want to stay engaged. The strike has taught me that much. I have an idea to form an activist group of teachers amongst my friends from the certification program. Link up with the Occupy folks and once a month get out there and do something grand. We’ll see if this happens. I’ll write about it if I do.

Soon it’s back to fiction and the closed off ventricles of my own thoughts. This level of engagement with reality—attempting to reconstitute the day’s events in as close to real time as possible—extracts a major toll. I’ve been a spectator in my own life.

Time to get back to the root of things.

A friend of mine warned me against writing about politics. It is, he said, the end of art. I’m beginning to agree. I’ve written not a single line or idea of any kind in the last nine days, only this.

3.

Beth eats a brownie. Her new thing is to do 90 seconds exercise after eating something sweet. It’s hilarious. Last night she dropped into squats without any warning. “If you,” she said while beginning to breathe heavy, “do ninety seconds of hard exercise after working out, the body doesn’t absorb as much of the sugar.”

Knowing Beth, this will be part of her routine for years.

I’m feeling reflective. I try to move my consciousness forward in time. Will people feel like the strike was worth it in five months, a year? Will it have mattered? Is there a chance we might have changed the national tenor of the debate over public education, unions, money, fairness, equality? Were our voices heard?

The brownie still in her mouth, she starts squatting. “It’s like I haven’t eaten anything at all,” she says. “If you start with the food still in your mouth, it’s more effective. That’s my own addition.” She pauses.

“No, Linda Lutton told me on the morning shift.”

It’s mid-afternoon and the sky is a dull blue. The air is cold. The sun is absent from its post. Day nine of the strike is over. I believe it will be the last. I wish the mayor read more fiction. I wish the mayor visited more public schools. I wish the world had more empathy in it. I wish people could see through the distractions to the root of things. I wish Kurt Vonnegut’s line from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater could be tattooed into the air above our city: “There’s only one rule I know of, babies—goddammit, you’ve got to be kind.”

An open letter to WBEZ: Linda Lutton.

18 Sep

(Update. Linda and I exchanged emails and she called me out. Turns out, she was right and I was wrong. Linda did not say what I accuse her of about evaluation and student learning. In fact, she gave a measured response. The source of the mistake was my wife, who is mortified. She must have misheard, through the din of taking care of our two daughters, and then passed on that mistake to me. Beth’s rarely wrong about these sort of things, so I believed her.

I’m leaving the letter up because, A. I believe in leaving a record of one’s mistakes, even online, for discussion and so on; and B. I think the issues at play, and the criticism leveled at WBEZ in general—if not Linda Lutton specifically—are legitimate. She did a good job, though, calling attention to the biggest issue of all, school closings. It’s the best coverage WBEZ has given to the strike. And even though the labor specialist is a naive dude, the story is worth listening to. You can listen to it here.)

Hi, Linda.

Listen, you really misrepresented the teachers’ position on evaluations the other day. Your words, if I remember correctly, were “teachers don’t want to be evaluated on whether their students learn.” This is an egregious misrepresentation. We want to be evaluated and we want to do good work teaching. We want results in our students, too. More than you or people outside the field. There’s nothing worse than teaching a unit then seeing that a student or students didn’t learn what you wanted. It’s heartbreaking. What we object to is having 45 percent of our evaluation be based on standardized test scores. First, most teachers are philosophically opposed to the whole standardized testing structure. Like others, I believe that the testing is a big part of the problem. We lose weeks to various tests that COULD BE SPENT ACTUALLY TEACHING. Second, these tests are not foolproof, and many data-crunchers have come to the conclusion that the flaws in some of these tests render the results (almost) useless. Third, so much of a student’s academic success depends on factors outside the school. To ignore this fact is to transfer the problems of poverty—which besiege much of our country’s youth, and are in part perpetuated through terrible tax and economic policies—onto the school system that cannot redress decades of racism and so on in six or seven hours a day.
We believe, or the bulk of us do, that our cities, towns, villages, political bodies don’t want to spend the money and change some of the absurd policies that keep people in poverty. Instead, blame is placed almost solely on the teachers. This is misguided and wrong, and you’re contributing to the (mis)perception problem.
Your language made it seem like we are being petulant, that we just don’t want to have anyone “judge” us. We’re not children or sullen teenagers who can’t handle a little criticism. We’re professionals, dammit. We want to be evaluated. We want to do good work. We just refuse to be evaluated, to such a high degree, by a tool we don’t think works and don’t have faith in.
Ben
P.S. I changed my mind. This is an open letter after all.

An open letter to WBEZ: Steven Edwards.

18 Sep

Hi, Steve.

My name is Ben Beard, and I’m a public school librarian. You seem like a nice guy and a congenial host for a radio program, but I’m detecting something sinister.

An underlying pattern.

A tendency towards deference to the people in power.

I’m accusing you of anti-scrutiny.

Yesterday, a guest on your show began to comment on the mayor’s policies. She said, in short, that Rahm is privatizing education—that this was part of his ultimate goal—and that tif money was being pulled out of the public school system to give interest-free loans to downtown developers.

But, you cut her off near mid-sentence, and misdirected the conversation to Rahm Emanuel’s impact on the upcoming presidential election.

This was strange. The guest was not speaking to this issue. You moved her away from the core issue of the teachers’ strike—which, alongside the Scott Walker recall in Wisconsin, is the biggest labor story in twenty years—and you briskly moved her to a national issue. Why?

WBEZ is always on in my house, car, and at work when I don’t have students. I listen to your program almost every day. You cover Chicago stories, but you do not investigate the mayor’s policies. Ever. Why not?

In fact, none of the WBEZ reporting has focused on the mayor’s policies. You haven’t done a story on the increase in the crime rates around the city (estimated in some places around a 30 percent bump) due to Rahm’s handling of the police force; you haven’t spoken of the UNO Charter School Network contributing to Rahm’s mayoral campaign, and then reaping the benefits from his policies once he was in office; you haven’t examined the tif money—admittedly begun under Daley—that has taken public money out of the school system for years (I have only the great Ben Joravksy at the Reader to thank for my understanding of it); you haven’t dug at all into his proposed (and as far as I know passed) energy tax. I listen to WBEZ every day and I know nothing about his energy policies, his handling of other public institutions, his connections to moneyed power brokers around the globe.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

What gives? WBEZ is a public radio station. Rahm Emanuel is not the public. He’s one man, with a handful of bean counters around him and some old fashioned, deep-pocketed corporate backers behind the curtain. It is your job to investigate these issues. If you don’t do it on your program, who will? WBEZ has to stop protecting him. Even if I agreed with his views, which I decidedly do not, it is your duty to interrogate, scrutinize and investigate the mayor’s claims, positions, backroom dealings, and the like. It is your duty, dammit.

Please, please, please, please do better. You cannot steer guests away from digging into the mayor’s core policies and beliefs. Voters can vote for him if they desire, but they should have a larger understanding of what his agenda really is, and what the city might look like if he continues to serve as mayor.

You are a member of the fourth estate. It’s time to earn your stripes.

Sincerely,

Ben

P.S. This is an open letter.

Day eight of the strike and there’s still no contract.

18 Sep

1.

I drive to work after three cups of strong coffee. The staff is there. The mood is troubling. Some people aren’t happy. We thought the strike was over. There’s a sense that the public has turned against us. The bright glassy sky offers no solace.

There is no contract. The language has not been finalized. The Board of Education (and Rahm Dass) has a history of reneging on their promises. The fight is not over. We cannot go back to work without the contract in writing. Even then, our lawyers have to go through the 150 plus pages and make sure there aren’t any bombshells like the “management rights” clause that was in an earlier draft. (It’s exactly what it sounds like.)

Let me say it again. There is no contract. We cannot vote for or against something that does not yet exist.

Occupy Rogers Park brings us donuts. They’re good people.

We stand, munch, mill, chat and ponder. The messy tangled complicated final stages of the contract negotiations. Issues abound. Pay, retirement, the new health clause, school closings—there’s bullet points but no actual contractual language.

Rahm has filed an injunction, which is no surprise, to force us back to work. His claim is that we are striking over issues we aren’t legally allowed to strike over. Of course, he and his proxies down state changed the laws to restrict the strikeable issues in the first place. (For instance, we are the only teachers’ union in the state that cannot strike over class size.) He’s the fox assigned to guard the henhouse.

He also said, laughably, that our strike posed a “clear and present danger” to the Chicago youth. The biggest danger to this city’s youth is Rahm and his privatizing policies. Under his leadership, crime rates are up 30 percent.

He and his like-minded posse, including Arne Duncan, are the reason public schools are failing.  They’ve decreased funding and forced schools to compete with other schools for resources. Using test scores as a battering ram, the RahmDuncanator has stripped out money that struggling schools desperately need. They do this in the name of school “reform.” Like King Leopold of Belgium swooping in to destroy the Congo while claiming humanitarian goals, Rahm claims to be saving the very system he is actively destroying. And he wields a tidy if vicious tautology: poor schools are struggling, therefore they should receive less money.

Ah, little Rahmel Reagan. You don’t understand the needs of your city.

2.

A teacher from a closed school who’s been picketing with us speaks up. “They told everyone before the semester break that the school was going to close. Then—click—all the kids were gone and so were some of the staff. Attendance was down. And then they said, ‘Well, now you got to close. You’re under-enrolled.’”

The mayor wants to close, as a part of his stated policy, 80 to 120 neighborhood schools. There’s no stated criteria as to which schools will be chosen for closure. There’s no complete list of endangered schools. These are essential pieces of information being withheld by the Board. Closed schools means fired teachers. Closed schools means less resources in troubled neighborhoods. In some areas, the public school is the only public institution that residents have access to.

As the staff beings to speak of the weekend’s events, I stand apart. I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf. Joining up has never quite been natural for me. I often live in my own head. I exhale. I’m tired. I’m burned out. I’ve done nothing but strike and march and chant and write letters and write this blog. I calculate I’ve written close to 20,000 words on the strike in just over one week. I cannot sustain the attention to minute to minute detail; I have to let my senses rest.

We spent forty minutes going through the proposals. My eyes are tired. I can’t muster the will to read the thing. With thousands of people perusing it, including our lawyers, and the contract not even completed, what are the odds that my aching eyes will catch a thing?

We vote not to picket, but to canvas and pick up trash. Do a little community service. Tone down the street presence.  Get our hands dirty. Literally.

A few of us walk to Dominick’s for plastic gloves. The others root around in the store. I read a miserly article in Newsweek, written by a screenwriter for God’s sake who is also a contributing editor to the National Review. WTF Newsweek!

I start drafting a response in my notebook. My first line is strong: “Rob Long has it exactly wrong.” I write half a dozen paragraphs. Hannah can’t find any gloves so we walk to Walgreens. I’m stewing over Long’s lies. Another enemy. I imagine a conversation with him, where I dress him down, denigrate his career, show him his true face, and then rebuild him into a decent human being. He thanks me, offers me a million dollars for my sartorial services.

I am amazed by my own weirdness.

We get the gloves. Lisa buys a card.

We’re walking slow, slow, slow. No one honks.

3.

We break into groups. We talk. We pick up cigarette butts and plastic coke bottles and flattened blackish paper. We’re working, but our hearts aren’t in it. We feel deflated. We feel disheartened. We feel dispirited.

The media continues to say terrible things about us. The real issues of the strike have been misrepresented.

We meet up again in front of the school. Liz gives us the rundown.

I write some more of my letter to Newsweek, with a sinking feeling that I won’t send it, and even if I did, they wouldn’t publish it. The last line is incomplete: “Paul Ryan is not—“ I don’t know how I planned to end the sentence and I don’t care.

A thousand ways to squander our internal resources. That’s five hundred words I won’t ever get back.

4.

Later, I watch Simone run around with a seven year old during a Rash Hashanah party. We’re in the suburbs. The backyard is pristine. Simone and her new friend crouch in front of a stone doghouse. They peer inside. Simone wears a pink tutu beneath a black polka dotted dress. Her new friend wears a similar outfit. They look like characters in some fairy tale, two little princesses about to brave the cave of the scary bears.

They run. They toss a blue ball back and forth. They yell at a tiny gray dog. They fight over toothpick umbrellas. I try to live in the moment, block the injunction and politics and strike from my mind. Pack it down in ice.

It doesn’t work.

I eat too much, drive home in a glucose daze. The only thing that keeps me awake behind the wheel is my reflux. Simone is tired, Pearl cries the whole way home. At one point Simone says, “She’s making me mad.”

Beth cracks some jokes. She’s in good cheer. We arrive home, slide both daughters into their respective beds and get ready for sleep.

Day eight of the strike is over. The delegates meet tomorrow to vote on the contract.

Fingers crossed.

 

Day seven of the strike and we’re still on strike.

16 Sep

The contract isn’t finished. The fight isn’t over. Tomorrow, we go back to the streets. The one-day respite has come and gone.