First march under the hot sun and it was brilliant.

7 Sep

1.

We had our first march today. Under the hot sun. It was brilliant.

But first, some background.

We’ve had a challenging first week, with the threat of a strike looming over our heads. Rumors abound. The students are edgy, too; they can sense the discord in the air. We’ve got a new schedule, a longer school day, and a feeling of profound uncertainty.

The issues are myriad and complex, and the teachers do indeed need to compromise on some things. But, the mayor is intractable. Like many (Republican) governors and mayors around the country, Emanuel wants to eliminate the teachers union. He sees us as an obstacle to his political ambitions. He doesn’t want us around. In his eyes, we are unwieldy and expensive.

People often single out small facets of the Chicago teachers’ union’s contract that annoy them. I’ve had arguments and I’ve heard them all; they involve tenure, the pension, guaranteed pay raises, “summers off” and the city being broke. I’ve heard dozens of times how bad teachers shouldn’t be protected by tenure. I agree. But to focus on these relatively tiny issues is a capitulation to the privatizing forces on the right. These forces—mostly backed by small government, slash and burn rich folk—are intrinsically opposed to public education. Forty years ago the U.S. was the shining light of the educational world. This with no charter schools, almost 100 percent unionized teachers (and very little standardized testing, but that’s a different topic).

The unions aren’t the problem. Teachers aren’t the problem. And the worst teacher in the city of Chicago hasn’t let down a single public school student as much as Rahm Emanuel has let down the entire public school population. He and his unelected school board cronies have doled out taxpayer dollars to various charter schools, while claiming they are too bankrupt to pay for the public schools that already exist. Emanuel is actively eroding the very system he has been (at least in part) elected to operate. (Don’t believe me? Read it here.)

And it’s a zero sum game. One tax dollar spent on a charter school is one tax dollar not spent on a public school. This is an essential point. Tax money is going to private organizations at the expense of public institutions. It’s a crime.

Moreover, charter schools aren’t held to the same standards as public schools. Charter school teachers aren’t required to have the same certifications. They are paid lower wages. They operate with less scrutiny and less accountability. And charter schools don’t have to accept everyone. They can say no.

At my school, we take everyone. Everyone. We don’t care if you are rich or poor, if you are an orphan from Calcutta or a refugee from Haiti or the only heir to a vast oil fortune. We take everyone, and smile while we’re doing it.

My school operates in a low income neighborhood. We have a transient student population. We have a high number of students with learning disabilities. Almost half of our students speak English as a second language. We have disproportionate amounts of asthma, poor eyesight. It’s a challenge, but we’ve been moving forward. We’ve persevered. By any metric, we’ve been doing good work. We have therapists, counselors, case workers and speech specialists who work with individual students through their problems. We have teachers’ aides with advanced degrees. We have seven national board certified teachers, along with half a dozen masters, and even one Ph.D. We are a supremely qualified staff.

But. We have not one but two charter schools now operating within a mile radius. Both schools cherrypick our best students and give us their worst. We are being squeezed, and in the face of all the hard work we are doing, it’s hard not to feel persecuted.

In this case, teachers don’t really think this is local. We see this as a national movement, an attempt to defund, and in many cases destroy, public sector unions. The postal workers got hit first, then teachers in dozens of states—most notably by Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Police and firefighters are on the chopping block, too. They know it. (Our mayor has already reduced our city’s police department, and the crime rates have predictably inched upward.)

We aren’t fighting for more money. We are fighting for the future of public education. We are fighting for nothing less than the heart and soul of this country.

2.

We start in front of the school. We wear red. We mill about, waiting. Few of us have participated in any sort of marching protest. I have a moment of anxiety; there are only fourteen of us, and I fear an embarrassing walk. I was wrong to doubt. Soon we are some forty strong. We walk holding signs up in English and Spanish. Because I’m tall, I’ve been asked to stand at the front. Excited, I walk too fast and soon have to stop and wait. I feel sheepish, but not for long.

I can’t help smiling as we head towards Clark. I’m uncomfortable chanting, but I soon fall into it without irony or shame. Ten minutes beneath the late afternoon sun with my friends and colleagues burns all self-consciousness away. The awkwardness fades. A feeling of rightness remains.

We march to Clark. We begin to absorb some of our students into the group. By the time we reach the street corner, I look back and see parents and students marching with us. Many of our ancillary staff, who aren’t in the union, march with us too.

We stop. We make a scene. We stand in the sunlight. We chant, hold up our signs and wave. We hit a groove. Our voices merge. People notice.

People honk. Police cars buzz. Buses beep. Firefighters wave. It is great.

We walk down Clark to Touhy. Some more of our students join the march. We chant “Save our Schools!” We chant “Enough is enough!” One of our third graders begins to do a silly dance to the beat. We urge him on. A fifth grader carries one of our signs. She is smiling. I feel a desire to dance.

We chant some more. Our voices are hoarse. We pump our fists. We head north on Clark to Howard. We chant some more. We are losing energy. Close to an hour has passed. We chant some more.

We head back towards school. The morale of our beleaguered staff feels buoyant. We’re radiating resolve. We are a smiling army. We believe in what we are marching for.

An old man passes us in a beat-up truck. “I’m with you!” he yells, then turns the corner and drives on.

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2 Responses to “First march under the hot sun and it was brilliant.”

  1. Leah September 7, 2012 at 4:02 am #

    Well said Beard! Absolutely perfect! Thank you for your eloquent words
    .

  2. wendyrjm September 7, 2012 at 4:04 am #

    Beautifully written…I posted it to my FB!!!

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