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.”

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