Tag Archives: CPS

Post strike post script: Brizard gets the axe.

14 Oct

I said I wouldn’t write about politics for a while, but this is a juicy postscript to the strike. Jean Claude Brizard—oh, he of such profound professional failure—“resigned” this past week. You can read some of his carefully considered response here.

I’ll summarize for you. He takes no responsibility and lays no blame: the perfect political speech.

He came in with a parade of red flags. In Rochester, NY, a whopping 82 percent of the teachers’ voted no confidence in his abilities. They ran him out of town. There were two federal lawsuits. There were rumors of bullying, discrimination and bull-headed stubbornness. Sounds familiar.

Rahmbo liked this so much he brought Brizard aboard. (Who doesn’t admire autocratic arrogance and public failure?) Rahmbo wanted a yes man, a personal hatchet man, to cut and chop and rip and wrench and mangle and slice and dismember the teachers’ union. By all accounts Brizard has two modes. As a yes man for the mayor, and as an overconfident autocrat who fixates on a handful of tiny “reforms,” but can’t communicate effectively, resulting in mutual frustration all around.

Brizard was Rahmbo’s smiling assassin. He publicly said how much he cared for the teachers, and in an almost weekly email sent to Chicago’s teachers, he continued to express his concern for us. He even offered little nuggets of praise. But he worked against us from the start. He was the point man on the longer school day, refusing to slow the process down so that the extra time could be planned for and used wisely. He tried to bribe schools—illegally—to enter the longer school day voluntarily. He tried to circumvent the teachers’ union in a variety of sneaky ways. Like so many other political appointees, he expected the rank and file to take a pay cut while he made no sacrifice at all. He was opaque, often missing in action, deliberately misleading the public about basic facts. He was aloof from the contract proceedings and a champion of charter schools.

Karen Lewis says that he was brought in “to blow up the union.” Fortunately for teachers, he was ineffective at his work.

His exit an expected move; politicians (and kings) always pick an underling to take the blame for a mistake. Brizard, by all accounts, was a good soldier and did what he was told. He was a hired gun, a henchman. His mistake, it seems, was giving Rahmbo bad advice early in his job.

“He promised Rahm,” Daryl, my friend and colleague, said, “that the teachers would never strike. And Rahm believed him.”

Don’t shed any tears. His tenure as the head honcho at CPS lasted less than two years. He takes with him a year’s worth of severance pay. That’s some $250,000. In a cash-strapped public school system in an underfunded city in a struggling state. To add a little extra spice to the whole thing, Rahmbo lied about Brizard being on his way out, while already having Byrd picked as Brizard’s successor.

(For a full accounting of Rahmbo’s bungling of the whole mess, read here.)

Goodbye, Jean Claude, our sweet, toothy failure. We shall not miss you.

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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.)

Day four of the strike and there’s rumor of an agreement.

14 Sep

My new morning ritual—two Motrin with a handful of vitamins and my reflux medicine. I stretch my sore body. My Achilles’ tendons have joined in on the ache parade. My lower back, ankles and knees all feel like hardened mush beneath a thin layer of skin. I eat a bowl of almonds and dried cranberries and chopped nectarines. I want coffee but don’t want to risk waking Simone, so I go without. The sunscreen forms white inkblots on my forearms.

The same indigo sky, the same stretch to school on my bike. Traffic is light. I make good time. Much of the group is there. We’re a raggedy bunch. Still smiling through. Daryl’s brought his son, Jawan.

The sun appears. Signs are passed out. We head across Potawatomie Park, the grass freshly mowed. Above, dark clouds in the distance head in our direction. We station ourselves on Clark and Rogers. We stand on opposite street corners. Leah seems indefatigable; she dances and waves and smiles. Stu leans against a pole and toys with his i-phone. His dog, Trevor, is happy to be at his side.

Behind us a street vendor sells champurrado and hot horchata.

The morning is warm for a short time and then the weather changes. The dark clouds move nearer. Soon, it is cold.

We’re slaphappy. We’re tired. Some of us seem bored. Kris has a fit of hysterical laughing. Melissa sings the entire song of Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” while Katie and Hannah and Abbey listen on.

We’re chanting less. We break into it here and there. The sky is now gray. We hear a rumor that the city is towing cars by the school. Daryl and I head back. He’s in a bad mood.

“I’m just sort of cynical about things right now,” he says. He has a show tonight. He looks tired. The sky is amazing. The storm clouds are a pastel blue. There’s a clear line of demarcation where the storm begins.

The cars are fine. Lena moves hers anyway. Better to be safe.

A scruffy lineman in a worktruck at the end of the street asks me how it’s going.

“I think they’re close,” I say.

“Is it about tenure?”

“Not really,” I say. “It’s a whole bunch of things. Our paraprofessionals are part of the union, and CPS doesn’t want to give them the same raise they’re giving the teachers. That’s just one thing.”

“I’m a union guy,” he says. “If those politicians weren’t such fucking thieves all the time . . .” he trails off. I thank him and move on.

Daryl drinks a grape juice. His spirits improve. Nothing like fructose to buoy the spirits. “Cornel West gave us a shout-out last night,” he says. “And they weren’t even speaking of this situation.”

We return to Clark and Rogers. It is a honking paradise. Almost everyone waves or nods or honks or offers a fist in the air. We feel the love.

I wonder why we’re getting a better reception here than on Sheridan.

“It’s because,” Sheila says, “they’re no Evanston and Northshore people on their way downtown.”

We talk in an information loop. Everyone agrees on everything. There’s an arc to a strike, and part of the trend is a conformity of opinion. I find it disturbing. I prefer the texture of spirited disagreement. It keeps the mind sharp.

We continue to circle back to waving and chanting. Across the street, some of our staff sit in folding chairs. It almost looks like they’re waiting for a parade.

Jawan and I speak of horror movies. He’s only 15 but a budding cineaste. He’s already made the big jump; he can see the value in movies he doesn’t like.

The “Things Rahm likes,” game moves through the group. Someone says he likes Coldplay; this irks me. They aren’t a bad band at all. Daryl agrees. “X & Y is a great record,” he says. “Come on.”

The game evolves. We turn it salacious. We make up rumors about the mayor. “Did you know,” S— says, “that Rahm bronzed his foreskin and keeps it on his desk?”

I rut in the gutter for a while. I tell little anecdotes about the mayor’s sexual proclivities. “And then,” I say at the end of each little story, “he puts his clothes back on and goes back to work.” It gets some laughs.

The best rumor we can think of is that Rahm produced the “Two Girls, One Cup,” video. We tell others.

“What’s ‘two girls, one cup?’” Hannah asks.

Somehow, amidst the picket and struggle, among the exhaustion and the fatigue, I find the strength to tell her.

We walk down to Alderman Moore’s office. He isn’t there. We mill about on the sidewalk, take a few pictures, while Liz and Maggie ask Moore for support, both now and when this hot mess is over. The morning’s work is done. With plans to meet in the afternoon, we all depart.

2.

Beth and Pearl and Simone are in better spirits. Simone had music class and is happy. I brew some coffee, make some lunch. Simone watches Sesame Street. I lie down to nap but Pearl is in a fidgety mood. I nod off for a little while anyway.

I wake up and dress.

The Tribune reporter calls, informs me that they killed her story. She asks me for a response to the end of the strike. “Was it worth it?”

“I don’t know yet,” I say. “I hope so.”

I leave for downtown at 2:45. The day is cloudy and gray, chilly but with occasional rays of sunlight, the kind of day I love. I don’t look anyone in the eye; I’m too tired for confrontation.

I hear the El stopping above. I sprint on tired legs up the escalator. I make the train. I sit in an isolated front compartment. I can’t control my foolish thoughts. They drift above the passing rooftops. Soon I am in a second heroic daydream. I’m arrested by the police, the union send in a lawyer, there’s a big trial and after I give a stirring speech the city is redeemed. I get a medal. Someone throws a banquet.

I’m embarrassed by my own silliness. I vacillate between the macabre—I often mentally recite obituaries of my family and friends, or imagine losing my loved ones—and the absurd. Such as the hero dream above. The human mind is a bizarre muscle.

I snap out of it. Downtown draws near. I exit at the Merchandise Mart, walk over the river and turn left on Wacker. There aren’t many protesters. I’m apprehensive. Was the event called off? Or did everyone else elect to stay home?

A few more red shirts here and there, and soon there are dozens of us. I should have stayed home. I turn the corner to Michigan. Tens of thousands of people on the upward bend. It’s a glorious sight.

“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen all day,” the old timer next to me says.

I make my way past the blue police barricades to the protesters. Gawkers take photos from the balconies on the Hyatt and other buildings that limn this stretch of Wacker. I stand on the median, look for my friends. It’s the same festive atmosphere with drum lines and picket signs and smiling people. There’s a high school marching band. I find Bill, Ana, Daryl, the rest of our school staff. I see Jonathon, too, but after a quick embrace he moves along with his colleagues.

Bill’s energy remains. He leads us in numerous chants. He jumps. He gyrates. He dances. He sings. His voice is hoarse. So is mine. We’re soon in the thick of it. We pass a drumline, we dance, everyone is dancing, the thing feels right and true.

We keep circling; they haven’t opened Michigan Avenue yet. A man passes out red plastic ponchos in case of rain.

We’re interviewed by Maggio News. Neither of us know who they are[1]. I try to answer calmly, but Bill rips into his high-energy spiel. “We’re out here fighting for working people,” he says, “we’re protesting the inequality of our schools, we’re fighting for every Chicago public school student.”

The best I can do is: “I don’t like Arne Duncan.”

We move on. I see Daryl limp up the stairs. The physical demands of this thing are immense.

Schools hold up banners. Vuvuzelas buzz. Trumpets blare. Drumskins beat. Bill continues his thing. He has the energy of five people.

“You’re amazing,” Ana says to Bill.

“It’s thirty percent self-serving,” he says.

We laugh.

3.

The march begins and soon we are on Michigan. “Get up, get down, Chicago is a Union town!” we chant over and over, raising our hands on the up and leaning forward on the down. Three helicopters hover in the distance. Bill and I intermingle our chanting with talk of movies, cooking, babies. We move through a number of old union songs. We sing “Solidarity forever.” We chant “Hey hey, ho ho, crowded classrooms got to go!” We yell, “Show me what Democracy looks like? This is what Democracy looks like!”

Handheld megaphones bolster tired voices. Two marching drums run with baseline rhythm. Thousands of protest signs bounce up and down. Hand-painted banners on wooden sticks. Love and camaraderie and common purpose.

A figure raises both hands out the top story window of one of the high rises. We respond with a loud cheer. A second figure hangs a Che Guevera sign out an open window. This too, strangely, gets a loud cheer.

We pass the Art Institute. Some Occupy Chicago people have set up a sign. We walk. We chant some. We’re almost done.

Bill bemoans the tepid response from his liberal friends. I concur. He says he thinks it’s that Union has become a dirty word. I agree. He’s stayed away from too much talk with his family. Me, too. The whole issue is emotionally and politically charged. It’s damaged at least one close friendship already. He admits the same.

We’re too close to it, others are too far away.

We’re too tired to stay on one topic for long. We both speak elliptically anyway; it’s one thing we have in common.

“What’s your favorite Cassevetes?” I say The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. He says A Woman under the Influence. We’re too tired to press our cases. At the end of the march, we break off from the protest. We’re soon two red-shirts amongst the downtown set.

Beth calls. I’ve taken both sets of keys; she and Pearl and Simone and Jack are effectively locked inside the house.

“Why don’t you just leave the doors unlocked?” I offer.

“Are you crazy?”

Bill departs for the Blue line with a hug. I want the strike to be over, but outside the protests I don’t know when I’ll see him again.

I stop in at Beth’s dad’s office for more homegrown tomatoes. Away from the energy of the crowds my body begins to give in to fatigue. The elevator ride is interminable. The gold inset patterns on the walls seem to move.

I hurry home. I carry the tomatoes gingerly, hoping this time to keep them safe. The train is crowded but I can breathe. The people around me fool with their smart phones. I feel gangly, skeletal. Another protestor stands next to me. Oddly, he’s wearing a shiny knight’s helmet. We’re too tired for small talk. I don’t even have the energy to compliment his headgear.

I make it home at quarter to seven. Simone is cracking eggs with Beth into a mixing bowl. Beth looks frazzled, she’s had both daughters all day, and she’s a teacher, too. Bad portents loom. Simone has a slight fever. Beth’s grandmother is in the emergency room. But it all ends well. Simone goes to sleep without fighting. Beth’s grandmother returns home in good health.

We don’t have the heart to listen to anymore news. We make a promise not to speak of the strike, politics, anything acrimonious at all.

It’s a good deal. By 10 I’m too tired to write anything of the day’s events. We watch the second half of Roman Holiday. Watching Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn gallivant through the streets of 1950s Rome, the money worries and media battles and marching and protesting and singing and hardship, the pernicious poverty on the west side and south side and marbled throughout the middle, the gang violence and the presidential election and the embassy attacks all seem light years away.

We’re nestled into our safe little cocoon. My children are sleeping.

Day four is over. I take Jack out for his nightly ablutions, brush my teeth and get into bed.

Day five, we hope, will be the last.


[1] We learn later that they are a far right “news” website. As Bel Biv Devoe said, you got to live and learn.

Day two of the strike and we mic check an alderman.

13 Sep

1.

Beth takes Simone and Pearl and Jack to a nearby school. They’re a big hit. Simone pumps her fist. People give her cake and candy. She’s wearing her only red shirt; it has a giraffe and geese and fluffy white clouds. Pearl is wearing pink, but people get the idea.

We’re a union family now.

(Here’s a good summary of how Rahm Emanuel created this crisis.)

2.

I breakfast in darkness, pedal beneath a blue indigo sky.

I arrive around 6:20 and we’re back at school. The regular early comers are there. Daryl holds a box of Dunkin’ Donuts. Soon there are breakfast bars and boxes of coffee.

We’re still jazzed. We decide to walk to Gale School, five blocks away. Gale is a student center, meaning it’s open for people to drop off their students. We walk down Howard. We’ve learned our lesson from the day before. We don’t chant, not yet.

I stop and head back. I get caught in some self-perpetuating loop of indecision. I keep returning to my bag, dropping my keys off, picking up my wallet; going back for my sunglasses and leaving my wallet; going back for my wallet and changing shoes; and finally getting back into my original shoes. It’s uncharacteristic and embarrassing. I’ve dropped two blocks behind everyone and have to job to catch up.

The early morning is chilly. A giant dumptruck moves gravel on Howard. Two construction workers hold up their fists and smile. “You gotta fight for it!” one of them says.

We set up our picket march along the west side of the school. We march over two driveways, where the central office people will have to park. We chat. Janet has brought a little drum. Things start off nice and slow. We wonder how aggressive we should be. A few central office people try to park in the lot, but we’re blocking the driveways. The first two cars give up and park across the street. A miniscule victory.

A Gale science teacher with a booming baritone voice informs us of a little side event. We’re going to deliver an oral petition to the area alderman.

Ten of us break off. We head down Ashland to the Morse redline stop. It’s a nice walk. A few passersby give us the thumbs up. A few cars honk.

We meet up with Occupy Rogers Park people. We shake hands, nod heads, get ready. They’ve set up a great mini-media event. The alderman for the area, Joe Moore, has set up a little table with free donuts and coffee for his constituents.

We split into two groups. We creep along the El tracks, converge on the other side. Moore’s face turns ashy. His shoulders sag. He straightens as we near. He recognizes the Occupy people. They bedevil him constantly, as they should. He rubberstamps every thing the mayor proposes. He is a flunky, a ward boy. He stands with big money and charter schools. He’s a smiler, a backslapper, the kind of Chicago insider who does what he is told.

“How many of you are teachers?”

Most of us raise our hands. Moore doesn’t know what to do. He is profoundly uncomfortable. “Do you guys want some donuts?” he asks.

An occupy dude begins the practiced speech. “Mic check!”

“Mic check!” we yell.

“Mic check!”

We repeat. The script is lean and terse. We ask Moore to picket with us. He doesn’t say anything. We ask him to renounce charter schools. He doesn’t say anything. We finish our spiel, there’s a moment of awkwardness, and then Leah runs over and puts a teachers’ union sticker the front of his blue-grey suit. It’s poison, he wants to take it off but can’t. A few people pass through us to get to the El.

“Do you have anything to say alderman?” from the Gale baritone.

“I hope, for the sake of the children, an agreement can be reached,” or some other equivocation.

The baritone doesn’t like it. “That’s it? That’s it? You won’t even say you’re in a tight spot but you sympathize? Okay, alderman. Okay. Well, now we know. And we vote. If we can educate one we can educate ten. Let’s go teachers. We’ve heard enough here.”

Another occupier—these people are fierce—runs over. “You won’t say anything to them? The teachers are right here?”

“We could have a dialogue. We could meet in our office sometimes. We could—”

“We need an elected school board!” Kris yells. The chant catches on.

A CTA worker watches nearby. “We’re next,” she says to me.

“Not if we can change things,” I say.

“Show me what Democracy looks like! This is what Democracy looks like!” we chant as we walk away. A police looks on as we leave the stunned Moore.

It is nothing less than exhilarating. We thank the occupy people, they thank us, there’s plenty of good cheer, and then we leave.

The photo doesn’t capture the extreme discomfort that covered Moore’s entire face.

3.

We return to Gale. Teachers walk in an elliptical around the front of the school. The Jordan people are gone. The head of our area is there. (I learn later that he called the police on teachers, saying they were breaking a thirty-yard ordinance; the police appeared and promptly informed him that there was no such thing.)

Rumors, and some of them turn out to be true. Paul Ryan did say he was standing with Rahm. Unbelievable. A Democratic mayor in the most union of cities and he’s backed by a union-busting Republican. Shameful. My local politics now in conflict with my national beliefs.

I end up alone. I walk to Clark. The staff are there, waving and chanting. I stay engaged for most of it, but I’m feel bedraggled. The hard concrete and my thin shoes and we all have hoarse voices and the honking cars are nice and growing in frequency but I’m ready to do something else. Daryl and his son and I try to re-brand Beatles songs for the strike, but the best we can do is two lines from “Hey Jude.” We change it to “Hey Rahm.” We sing it anyway.

We have a quick skull session in front of the school. Liz gives a great speech. Stu gives a great speech. Kellie gives a great speech. I slink off to my bike, feeling a punishing ache in my ankles and knees.

At home and Beth and I are both frustrated. I nap. Simone doesn’t. Pearl doesn’t, either. Our planned trip to downtown as a family is faltering. Beth and I argue. It doesn’t matter what about; it’s part of the emotional and psychic unrest in our lives.

I don’t drink any coffee. I douse myself with sunscreen. I leave feeling enervated. The train ride is uneventful. I try to sleep but can’t. The sun is my enemy.

Downtown is electric once again. Red shirts and red bandanas and drums and horns and great signs. Rahm as a Grinch. Liars and cheats spelled out on the periodic table. A giant inflatable rat with Rahm’s face on it.  A couple dressed as Wonder Woman and Captain America. A drummer has an American flag draped over his shoulders. Children dance and sing. A mother dressed in impeccable white walks through the crowd with a sign: “Evaluating teachers and students by their test scores is racist!” Her son trails behind her.

The head of the American Federation of Teachers is there. She gives a speech. I can’t see her. She’s good. She draws parallels with the firefighters that rushed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. She speaks of the inequality, the dangers of privatization. The head of the Chicago firefighers gets up. He wears red, too. He says two or three things, he’s clearly uncomfortable, but he lets us know firefighters are with us.

I’m alone in a crowd, don’t recognize anyone. Karen Lewis gives a speech. She’s good. She’s abrasive. She’s funny. She highlights many of the issues. I can’t tell where the stage is and then I move over a few feet and see that I’m only forty feet away.

Tens of thousands and we march. The feel is festive and a little more mischievous. My back throbs. My knees are filled with cement. My toes are blistered. My eyes unfocus. I shuffle along. People are dancing and chanting. I try my best.

I meet up with Kwasniak, our gym teacher. We shake hands. We talk. I fall out of the march. I head away from the crowd. Soon I am the only red-shirted person on a street of well-dressed downtowners. I sense hostility but no one says anything. I run through an imaginary confrontation with the mayor. There’s a mic, a big rally. I set him straight with my witty, learned lines. He imbibes my wisdom. I realize I’m day-dreaming the hero-dreams of my youth.

I drop by Beth’s dad’s office, we chat. He was in strikes when he was a teacher. “Rahm’s a dog,” he says. He gives me a bag of tomatoes. I move along.

The train back and it’s a blur. A woman with a hearing problem shrieks into her cell phone. It’s hilarious. “Mom? Mom? Mom? Can you hear me? Mom? Can you hear? Mom! I’m just going to meet a friend. Mom! I’m just going to meet a friend. Now I missed my stop. Mom!” And so on.

I exit the train. My legs are shaky. The bag of tomatoes breaks open. One splits onto the ground. I can see the discolored red innards beneath the outer flesh. It’s hard not to see some symbolic import. I swoop up the tomatoes and make it home.

Beth is outside with Pearl on her chest. She waves and smile. We hold hands, go to meet Simone in the plaza.

Day two ends. I try to write up the events of the day, I try and fail. I spend the latter part of the evening nodding off through Roman Holiday.

For the first time in weeks, I sleep well.

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.”

Strike!

10 Sep

It’s on.

The strike is on, and our mayor is nowhere to be seen.

We’ll see if 26,000 people with right on their side can win one for working people around the world.

A report from the front lines, tomorrow.

A second letter to WBEZ.

24 Jul

(WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton—the recipient of my open letter from last week—responded today. She requested that I not include her comments. I will say that she was measured and fair in her response, although she and I have some strong disagreements. I’ve included my response.)

Hello, Linda.

And thank you for responding. I’m going to put up our give and take on my (admittedly meager) blog, so that people can follow along, comment, and so on. I like that we can have a back and forth. If you want me not to include your response(s), please let me know and I’ll take them down.

I actually have dug through a lot of your educational reporting over the last nine months or so. You do good work. And, I’m sorry for conflating you and Vevea. When I went to the story page, it listed both of your names. Obviously, much of my criticism should have been and is aimed at Becky. (Her story was egregiously, almost viciously, biased.) That was a mistake, and for that I’m sorry. However, I feel like you both were biased against the teachers union on simplistic grounds. I feel like the quotes you chose, the way you framed the story—for instance, emphasizing that the teachers’ union didn’t take long to reject the arbiter’s findings, and if I remember correctly you returned to this point during the discussion—seems unfair.

In the conversation section, I do think you highlighted the average teacher salary in a disingenuous way. I don’t know any teachers who make $70,000, save for perhaps one or two old-timers who’ve been in the system for a long time. Most teachers make in the $50-60 thousand a year mark. (I’m not counting the pension pickup.) This is hardly rich, and to my way of thinking a solid middle class income. (I think of myself as a writer first, lived off $12,000 a year for four years in a row, and I think teachers get paid pretty well, actually.) I think everyone who wants to work should be able to have a living wage; good healthcare; and a reliable retirement. Re-aligning our national tax structure—including marginally raising taxes on people like me—would help towards this goal. I think comparing the public and private sectors is absolute nonsense. In times of prosperity, the private sector does much better than the public, and in some sense people work for the state and federal government for these baseline protections. Do we get to say, when there’s an internet boom, “Look how well those silicon valley dudes are doing; we should be overnight millionaires, too!” Of course not. We’re the tortoises, economically speaking, in the rat race, and we are not greedy for wanting to stay middle class. Let the hares run wild with their scheming. We just want to be able. In some sense, teachers and other public sector employees choose to be sensible. In good times we do okay; in bad times we do well.

But you must concede this fact: there are no rich teachers. (There are some rich administrators.) $70,000 a year is not rich in this country. As I said above, it’s a good wage, but it is not rich. But what constitutes a living wage is, up to a point, subjective. In an ideal world, I think the pay should be higher, partially to attract even better candidates to the field, although most public school teachers I know are sharp, dedicated professionals.

What isn’t subjective is the mayor’s role in all of this, and in this discussion, Emanuel got a pass. He created this crisis. He pushed for something he can’t afford, hasn’t budgeted for, and, frankly, hasn’t thought through. The longer school day creates major staffing issues; I have a masters degree, and under the longer school day I have to oversee two recesses. I don’t mind, I don’t have pride in this sort of thing and like to be helpful, but it is a profound waste of my experience and skill-set to run a recess. But I have to, because we don’t have the staff. (We also don’t have band, orchestra, any second language teachers, and so on.) Without new enrichment courses, or a well-thought out roll-out of the longer school day, it’s just a political game. I think you would admit that the mayor doesn’t seem particularly worried about individual CPS students. He wants to look tough, decisive; he wants to look like he’s changed things for the better. Fine, but this is not the way to do it. And with two of the longer school day pilot schools scoring worse, well, there’s data supporting the union’s claim, which is, let’s have a longer school day, if we can staff it properly, use the time wisely, and pay for it.

I know the story was short, although with the conversation afterwards, the story was long enough to get into some of the other issues. You brought up the educational reformers. But you didn’t report on them. You didn’t tell us anything about them. If I didn’t know better, I would have left the story feeling that there are these great, enlightened thinkers out there with answers to how to fix education without an agenda, but Chicago school teachers just don’t give a damn because they’re greedy. This is unfair, and a misrepresentation of the facts.

I acknowledge, finally, that the union could indeed bend/compromise on some issues, including tenure as it stands (we have to have some bulwark against administrators firing people because they don’t like or agree with them, but it could be a touch looser); some type of pension reform (I’ve read in multiple places that Illinois pays a large matching rate into every public sector pension and this is a big part of the state’s budget crisis); and even annual pay increases (I like them, but we could discuss). I want fair reporting and balanced coverage. But the mayor tried to circumvent the existing system by fiat. His logic is simple. He wants a longer school day, and damn the torpedos, we’re going to have one. Who cares what teachers think?

I guess I feel like both or your stories had enough space in them to include subtle and not so subtle critiques of the union’s position, but did not have enough time to comment on the mayor’s intransigence, which, even to his supporters, is quite severe.

Returning, finally, to your past reporting, I feel that if you objectively scrutinized this piece—including Becky’s report and the subsequent discussion—it would not meet your journalistic standards. It feels like you let some personal anger over what you perceive to be inflated teacher pay, or perhaps a bias against public sector unions, color your story.

Teachers have been demonized enough. Let’s dig into some of the other levers/causes/issues surrounding student performance. Let’s take the mayor to task for creating a crisis.

Thanks again for responding.

Ben