Day one of the strike and we’re 26,000 strong.

11 Sep

1.

I awake to five o’clock darkness, too jazzed up to sleep. I stretch, eat some peaches, finish up my morning ablutions and leave out by my bike. The streets are empty in the pre-dawn glow. I pedal, filled with anticipation.

The bulk of the staff arrives before 6:30, the sun not yet up. Picket signs lie on the ground in a long row. A small folding table with bagels and donuts and coffee. We walk. Stu brings his dog, wearing a red shirt and a red cap. Gabe brings her daughters. So does Gordon. We feel like a family.

A neighborhood eccentric speaks to Daryl as he walks his dog. “Every day you’re out here, a kid is going to die,” he says. “All that blood is on your hands.”

Daryl is incredulous. “Rahm cut the police force. That’s caused way more crime than this.” The eccentric shakes his head and ambles on. Daryl is angry, begins to pass his anger on to others.

“He’s nuts,” I say. “I saw him a few months ago with his shirt buttoned on backwards, wearing shoes with no toes. Forget it.”

We’re anxious but happy. A feeling of solidarity, of coming together; we’re rallying around our core beliefs. It feels good. We often struggle with low morale. This crisis is a tonic.

We march, chant, peak early, settle into a chatty routine of walking an elliptical pattern in front of the school. Few cars appear. We are mostly alone.

Time passes slowly. “It’s only 8:30?” a teacher says.

People are still happy. “The smile goes away on Friday,” Gordon says. “When the bills come.” She laughs.

I sip a coffee, resist the donuts.

Some students and parents appear. Most are on our side. A few seem confused there isn’t any school. Two students show up in full uniform. They seem relieved when they find out there’s no school.

We head to Clark. We set up with our signs and begin chanting. Cars honk. People wave. A few shake their heads. “I’m saying shame on you to every person who isn’t supportive,” Sheila says.

“You should say, ‘thank you for your support,’” I say. “It’s funny.”

“No, I’m going to shame them. I’m Irish; I know how to use the guilt.”

We start to lose steam. Cars honk, people pass. More students and parents join us. The sun beats down. Two students begin banging a drum beat on a metal pylon. Chris and Leah begin to dance. Leah and Liz act like cheerleaders.  People giggle. We’re growing punchy. Chris’s new chants help, but we’re lagging.

Gale School teachers appear on the opposite side of the street. We are galvanized. We start a call and response. We chant. We sing. We smile and wave. It feels good. Some of the kids dance. One fourth grader does a Michael Jackson impression. He kills. “Show me what Democracy looks like!” They yell. “This is what Democracy looks like!” we respond.

I return to the school to check in. See an old student. She’s now homeless. We talk. I ask her how she eats. She shrugs. I ask her where she stays. “With friends.” I ask her if she’s living out of a suitcase. “Suitcase?” she says. “I got all my stuff in a tiny bag and a purse.”

I remonstrate. I plead. I tell her we can help her. I give her some ideas. She’s uncomfortable. I’m not getting through. Fifteen minutes have passed. I’m missing the picket. I tell her that if she ever needs anything, to come and find me. It feels like an empty promise. My heart breaks a little, but I have to let her go.

I return to my colleagues. The chanting continues. People are tired but happy. We convene in front of the school and make plans for the afternoon.

I bike home. I feel filled with purpose. Filled with love.

2.

I nap. I eat a big bowl of rice and two nectarines. I slurp down three cups of coffee. I play with Pearl for fifty minutes while Simone sleeps. I reapply sunscreen. I look in the mirror. I’m a cross between some doomed Icelandic peasant from the middle ages and a vampiric, pale-faced weirdo with a ghastly skin condition. I rub the patches into my skin, but a vague pie-bald look remains.

Simone wakes up, and we catch the train to downtown. The train ride is uneventful. Simone bounces her legs, says, “Go teachers!” a few times. She even pumps her fist.

We exit onto Washington, follow the crowds. A passersby gives me a high five. We can hear the noise. The air is electric. We turn the corner to an immense tidal wave of crimson, filling the streets and the sidewalks. Police cordon off streets. We fall in and march. The flood of people is extraordinary. The bulk of it extends past my vision in both directions.

Red shirts and white signs, trombones and drum lines. Simone smiles, but is a little uneasy. The red mass of people shimmers with resolve. The thing feels important. We feel the power of numbers. We are winning. I don’t know the official number but it is massive.

I find my friend Bill. He rules. Together we are a potent mix. We jump. We chant. He leads call and response with the people around us. Horns blow. Drums bump. Our feet move forward. I find a second wind. Bill is fantastic, I feed off his energy, soon feel rested. He’s a dynamo. Simone likes him. So do the people around us.

The whomp whomp of a helicopter and thousands of teachers yell and wave.

Bill and I take a break from the chanting to discuss baby names. He and his wife have picked out an absolute killer.

We shuffle. We amble. We slide.

A cowbell in our ears but we’re happy.

Milk jug rock shakers, the shriek of vuvuzela, plenty of children. The creative expression of thousands of resolute teachers. It feels like some grand parade.

We remain a smiling army.

The streets are packed with people. The crowd stalls. We can move no further. Traffic is blocked up. Police stand at strategic points. We see some mounted policemen. They seem bored. The cost of the event must be huge. This is what working people can do when they protest en masse: jam up a city, bring everything to a crawl.

Bill and I move with Simone to the sidewalk, push our way forward. We end by a news van. We look for our friend Ron. Bill climbs up the news van to get a better vantage point. He’s indomitable.

I see my friends and colleagues in the crowd. Simone and I make our way to them. A drum line has formed. I start to dance. I can feel the spirit. My tired feet move of their own accord. I’m in the happy place. This is the life I want. Purpose and pleasure intermingled. Simone dances by bobbing her arms up and down. She then leans in, yells, “It’s too loud!” A signal to go.

We say our goodbyes. We make our way back to the train. I run into some of my students. They give me hugs.

Red-shirted children run and play around Daley Plaza. It is a welcome sight.

Simone is sleepy. She grows heavy in my arms. My second wind is gone. I wait on the crowded El platform feeling exhausted. Five trains pass, too crowded for us to get on. We finally make it. The train is packed. The sun sets in our faces.

Day one is over.

The lady next to us is on our side. “I heard it was great,” she said. Simone puts her elbow in my mouth. She laughs when I chew on it. The other passengers read, listen to their headphones, ignore us.

“Was that too overwhelming for you?” I ask her.

“No,” she says, and tucks her dolly under her arm.

Bill sends me a text. “Same time, same goal tomorrow.”

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