Tag Archives: CTU

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.”

Advertisements

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.

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.

Day six of the strike and I’m narrating my own life.

16 Sep

1.

I awake at 7:45 to Simone saying, “Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s daddy!” and flinging the pillow off of my face.

The day feels rushed from the start. Simone has a birthday party to go to, Beth wants to work out and clean the house, Pearl won’t nap and everything feels condensed, agitated, exacerbated. Before I know it, the clock reads 11 and I soon need to leave.

“I don’t want our kids to say fifteen years form now, ‘Mom, you missed out on history to clean the kitchen?’” Beth says.

I call Jonathan, see if he wants to meet. He can’t; he’s doing the school thing. We chat for a minute about books and the ennui and he says he feels the same perennial self-dislike I wrote about two weeks ago. I say I feel frustration with the human race. “Our brains are ninety percent chimp,” he says.

I want to take Simone but I’d literally have to turn around and come right back. I vacillate. I waffle. Maybe I should skip. Spend some time with my family. What difference does one person make?

“You should go,” Beth says. “Just go. Go. Go.”

Simone has no pants on. I leave her behind. She cries as I shut the door.

On the platform, the day is warm. I’m taking notes. I can’t think of how to spell “exacerbate.” I entertain the notion I’ve had a mini-stroke.

People discuss college football. I want to yell, “Don’t you know what’s going on? Don’t you know what’s at stake?”

Black shirts and baseball caps. Baby strollers—anger isn’t our main obstacle; apathy is.

Sports television bubble gum Coors Light and holding hands in a grassy park and brunch and lunch and dinner and the bright glowing wondrous banal spectrum of living without the burden of other people’s problems.

The train arrives. I get on. The trip is uneventful. I can’t read or write on the train else I get a headache so I let my thoughts drift. I’m antsy. Visions of a riot, police in riot gear sobbing while dousing protestors with tear gas. I save two dozen small children, meet the president, become a folk hero. Someone like Josh Ritter writes a song. Where do my thoughts come from?

I exit at Washington/Wells, cross under the tracks. Five years in Chicago and I’ve never been on the pink line. I sit on a metal bench. Someone has written in black letters on the seat: “Are there any pimps left?”

Other teachers, other red shirts. A ten-year-old wears a blue shirt that reads only, “Love.”

I wish Simone were here with me. I’m glad she’s not. I wait glum and unshaven. At least it isn’t hot. I’m not hungry but I want to eat. I don’t smoke but I crave a cigarette. I’m struggling with the sublimation process. How to let go of all this frustration in the air? How do I find the courage not to hate?

2.

Union Park is huge. I enter through the wrought-iron gates. Fifty aqua-blue portolets line the edges of the park. Two dozen people stand in line to buy hot dogs. An enormous crimson crescent of people encircle a stage. I make my way over. It’s hard to gauge how many people are here. Thousands, yes, but maybe not tens of thousands. It’s a Saturday. The contract negotiation appears to be over. The sense of historical importance has faded just a touch.

A church spire slices through the trees. I see two helicopters and a plane. One of the Occupy Rogers Park people says hi. She invites me to the next occupy meeting.

I get a text from Bill. He isn’t coming. He has his wife and their upcoming child to attend to. He’s sent an impassioned little text to all his teacher friends.

I find a patch in the middle that isn’t crowded. I listen to a female speaker with a gut-wrenching voice. She gets right to the heart of it. “It’s time for the working people of Chicago to take back the city that works. . . . We got to stand up to the tactics that are destroying our city. We got to hold every damn body accountable, the teachers, the parents, the mayor, the alderman, every damn body.”

I cheer. I clap. The mood of the gathering is less festive. More resolute. There’s already a touch of grim resolve in the air., not one full week in.

Another speaker. A union organizer and teacher for charter schools. He explains that charter school teachers aren’t the enemy, just the mindset that would allow teachers to work for so little pay. I clap. He explains how hard the charter schools fight any talk of unions at all. I cheer.

More speakers appear but I’m losing interest. I agree with what they are saying, I have my family at home, I’d prefer to march and chat and sing.

I feel a hand on my ass. It’s Jonathan. We catch up. He’s at Hawthorne now. He’s writing an entire curriculum for the upper grades, connecting all the subjects. He’s nuts. Every night, after the marching and chanting and yelling, he goes home to work on a new unit. He has a tambourine and he hits it with what looks like a tiny maraca. He was a union organizer years and years ago. He’s in a rock band. He rules.

Another speaker mentions a teacher strike in Baltimore back in the day. She ends with this: “I used to tell people, if you see me wrestling with a bear, help the bear.” The crowd roars. “We’re fighting the bear, but we don’t need any help.”

Jonathan asks if I want to get a beer, but I can’t. I want to make it home to help with Simone and the birthday party. We hug, I leave out. The rally is subdued but well attended. A coalescing of union people, antiwar people, hippies, and teachers. Teachers haven’t been part of the counter culture for a long time. It feels right.

I climb back up the stairs and wait for the train. The anxiety and sleeplessness and uncertainty of things has left me with weary legs. Two police officers lean on the banister overlooking Union Park. A sea of red. I think of red blood cells. One of the cops has a cigar. They seem amused. We can’t quite make out what the speaker is saying from here.

Two teachers emerge from the train. “Is it over?” they ask.

I feel sheepish. “Oh, no, no, I have two little children at home, else I would . . .”

Everything’s a rush. The American condition. Hurry up and wait. The daily dilemma. One reason I’ve never ridden the pink line is it only seems to run every six hours. I wait. I look at the clock on my cell. An ivy-covered chimney juts out into my view. The train arrives. I board, noticing how clean and new the train feels. I transfer back to the brown line and head north.

3.

An old-timer with his name tattooed on his forearm speaks to me about the strike. He has big teeth and an odd way of speaking. “Is it almost over?” he asks. His name is Don.

“I think so. I hope so,” I say.

“There’s no money.”

“There’s money,” I say, and the whole train is listening, “it’s just a question of priorities. Money for schools or no-interest loans to property developers?”

“People in the suburbs like me are being double-taxed for Chicago public schools.”

I wince inside. “You’re being double taxed?”

He nods. “Cook County.”

“I don’t know about that, but I do know that Chicago has for decades underfunded public education. Some students don’t even have textbooks.”

He’s mad at first, but I just talk with him and soon he isn’t mad at all. He moves over to my side of the train.

He tells me his story. He’s a product of Chicago public schools. He has severe dyslexia, so severe he still can’t read. “But I own my own business, I’m doing just fine.” He has a little window washing company that cleans the windows of every Dunkin Donuts downtown. “The teachers then knew I wouldn’t pass any tests, so instead they taught me how to cook, how to use my memory, how to fix things.”

I explain that people like him—smart people with learning disabilities—are precisely the ones who are most harmed by the always-be-testing mindset.

He goes on. “Every Friday, back when I was in school, two teachers and they would rotate, two teachers would donate their time to run a dance. They would pat each person down, make sure there were no weapons or anything, and then we would have a dance. It was great. The kids, we all knew that the teachers cared about us. School was more than just a place you had to go.”

I said we do the same thing now—just not the patting and the weekly dance.

Don loves to talk. And he loves to reminisce. He keeps saying the expression, “back when I was in school.”

Turns out the lady sitting next to me is his wife. She’s quiet, also a product of Chicago public schools, and soon all three of us are having a nice time as the El stops pass. Don then tells me how he ran a building for a while. “A guy says to me, I like you, I can’t get my tenants to pay the rent, why don’t you work for me for a while? So I get into the super business on a building on Sheridan, in Uptown. When tenants didn’t pay their rent, I would take their doors off the hinges. I would shut down the elevator. I would turn off the washer and dryer. People came up with the money real fast with no door on their apartment. You see, back then, the door was considered part of the building, not the apartment. And it cost you $942 to take someone to eviction court. Better to take the door off the hinges, let them walk five blocks for laundry. Man, they paid.” He and his wife laugh, they aren’t bad people but I’m uncomfortable with this new story. I give a cursory laugh anyway.

We shake hands. I thank them for their company.

At home I find Beth in the kitchen and Simone running around the house naked. No nap. The party starts in 20 minutes. Beth hasn’t been able to clean. Simone fights me about what she wants to wear. She’s tired but excited about the party and it is a bad combination. We leave early, meet a neighborhood friend on the way.

4.

The block party is just starting and children are making their way to the three-year-old’s birthday bash. A little table with glue and stickers and party hats, a bowl full of bagged dried apples and cheese goldfish, juice boxes swimming in a tub of ice and a keg of Half-Acre beer. I’m angry at the dissonance of the world, I can’t help it, I’m too tired for any kind of decent small talk, I sit alone and brood.

I sip a beer feeling morose. The alcohol does its dark magic. The party has two ponies, one white the other black, for the kids to ride. Simone is fascinated by them but passes on getting in the saddle. “That’s too scary for me,” she tells Beth.

I lean back.

There’s a danger in writing about something as you going through it. You begin to narrate your own life. I look up at the sun-touched branches, the green tips of the thousand leaves turned gold, and I think, “I look up at the sun-touched branches, the green tips of the thousand leaved turned gold.”

Day six has ended. The strike has not. I fall asleep quickly, but Simone awakens me at 2 to tuck her into bed. After that, I’m up. I sit down and begin writing, hoping to capture as much as I can before the memories slip away.

Day five of the strike and the world is not our oyster.

15 Sep

1.

I awake at 6:30 and feel refreshed. I eat a big bowl of oatmeal and almonds and dried cherries with Simone. I kiss my family goodbye. I pedal under subtle sunlight. I arrive at 8:05. The bulk of the staff is already present.

We remain a raggedy group. The big story is how many of our staff were in the media the night before. Kris was interviewed by ABC about tif funds. Dina was interviewed on another news channel. Robin was interviewed on ABC, too.

And I was interviewed in the Chicago Tribune. (You can read my comment here.) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-09-13/news/ct-met-cps-teachers-strike-reaction-20120914_1_picket-lines-chemistry-teacher-negotiations

People recount yesterday’s march. Some Chicagoans are angry. On Wacker, yesterday, someone said to Kris, “Get back to work, you dirty piece of shit.”

“What’d you say?” I ask.

“Nothing. I just got away from him and then cried.”

Some teachers write hopeful messages to our students in wet chalk on the sidewalk. Our principal appears, says hello to everyone. One of the many children present hands him a fair contract sign. He drops it like it’s kryptonite, makes a joke about no one catching him with a camera.

The plan is to canvas the neighborhood, speak with people, hand out flyers. We get ourselves together. People munch on bagels and donuts, slurp down coffee and eat a chocolaty confection that makes me sleepy just looking at it. Four of our students walk by.

“I saw you on TV last night!” Brian[1] says.

“Me?” I ask. “You saw me?”

“Yeah, you were marching, dancing.”

I feel a shiver of embarrassment. “Was I interviewed?”

“Nope. Just singing and stuff.”

We head out in small groups. I walk with Daryl, Hannah, Abbey, Larry, Doctor O. We walk past Dominick’s, through the EL station. Larry tells me some crazy lady upbraided him yesterday morning. “She came over and yelled, ‘We don’t do this kind of shit in China! Go back to work!’”

“China?” I ask.

“What kind of nonsense is she talking?” Doctor O. asks.

2.

The media tide is turning. After being called lazy and greedy and selfish and horrible and callous—multiple pundits warned of danger to the students if we did have a strike—things are turning our way. The issues we care about—neighborhood schools, equal funding, smaller class sizes, money for arts and music education, and so on—are percolating through the various news filters. Some of the pernicious lies remain. If I hear one more report of how charter schools out-perform public schools, they absolutely do not, I’ll scream.

Paying (often) less qualified teachers less money somehow equals a better education for students. It’s madness.

3.

A big thing is the shoes. I have one pair of newish shoes that kill my ankles, and an ancient pair of good shoes that destroy my feet. I go with the feet destroyers. The feet can handle a beating better than my ankles.  I try wearing flip flops but it feels strangely inappropriate.  For all my banter, striking is serious business.

We stand in front of the west-facing tunnel. It is a beautiful day. The sun is above but there’s a chilly breeze. We speak with a few people. Almost everyone is friendly. We mill about, try to look busy. The enervation shows. We’re easily distractible. My voice echoes through the tunnel. I pretend to be God.

Hannah and Abbey and the others speak with two teenagers sitting on a metal bench. Doctor O. and Larry talk about cutting off aid to Egypt. I feel a bouncy nervousness in the balls of my sore feet.

I walk to the corner, turn right. I see two red shirts in front of the station and I amble over to say hello.

Howard past Clark is a touch dodgy. There’s gangs and dealers and unemployed dudes and the place is turning itself around, but I wouldn’t wander around here after 10. There’s tension and toughness in the ether. It really isn’t the nicest of places.

I say hello to the other two teachers. Thirty seconds of small talk and I’m wondering why I came over. We have little in common. My mind wanders to The Odyssey of all things. The conversation ends. I want to extricate myself but am not sure how. I put my hands in my pockets.

An overgrown man-child dressed all in black rides his bike within one inch of my foot. It’s a provocative move, but I don’t take the bait. He smokes a thin cigar.

A group of dudes mill about in front of a liquor store. “I’m going to knock you the fuck out!” one of them yells. I don’t turn to see if he’s speaking to me. That’s rule number one, of course. Don’t make eye contact with anything you don’t want to tangle with. I move along.

An aged dude in a flowing green button down and expensive black slacks stands by the entrance, says hello. I say hello back and he beckons me over. He has a bandage on the back of his head, he’s slurring his words. He has a hospital discharge bracelet on his wrist. “My name is Willie,” he says. “I got robbed. They clubbed me in the head. I just got out of the hospital but my brother ain’t here. Can you give me two twenty five for the El?”

I sense I’m being hustled but it’s a good con. I dig into my bag. I have the exact amount. I hand it over. He thanks me, goes into the station. I don’t have the patience to wait for him to come out.

I return to the group. “There are some street toughs over there,” I say. No one laughs at my old fashioned word.

We all walk over to Howard. Daryl looks for the guy on the bike. He isn’t around. “There’s a Jamaican bakery that way,” he says. He grew up around here. We walk, speak with a few people, smile and wave. He buys Ginger beer and beef pockets and soon we are heading back to Clark. Daryl shares the beef pockets with the others, the ginger drink with me. It’s great, but bothers my throat so I only sip a little.

The hustler with the bandage on his head stands outside the station.

“Shit,” I say. “I don’t want him to be uncomfortable. Let’s just cross the street.”

Daryl shakes his head. “He won’t be embarrassed. Come on.”

“Last time this sort of thing happened, the guy turned it into a joke. I can’t bear a second sob story.”

We walk past him and his features have hardened. He no longer looks like a victim, but more like a hawk. He’s standing by some of the street toughs. They all seem to know each other.

Two of them argue over who is more of the neighborhood. “Fuck you man, I graduated from Field,” all in black man child says. “I’m all Rogers Park.”

We head back to school. The day remains a stunner.

“I always give money,” Daryl says. “Always. I figure if someone has to get into the street to beg, then I can spare a little to help.”

This leads into a discussion on welfare and I start to get loud. I’ve become a terrible conversationalist. I’m combustible. I’m tendentious. I’m cantankerous. I raise my voice in restaurants. I bang my hand on tables. I’m some Don Rickles parody. “What’s so good about this morning?” I’ve turned into some foaming junkyard dog.  I’m having trouble controlling my temper over small things.

I’ve said it before. There’s something in this process that propels you.

4.

We’re not alone. Lake Forest teachers are now on strike. Highland Park is one week away. Other areas of Illinois are in the contract process. We hear rumors of other school systems, other public sector employees, getting behind us from all around the country.

Most everyone was friendly with me today. Others weren’t so lucky. Some were yelled at. Sheila was accosted by an old man. She tells me the story. “He yells, ‘I’m a taxpayer, go back to work!’ I said, ‘Do you want to talk to me about it?’ and then he gets on the bus,” she says. She pauses. “The next person who’s rude to me, I’m punching him in the face!”

Dina recounts how two people muttered rude things to her as they passed by. The Walgreens parking lot seems a hotbed of animus towards the teachers.

“If the strike goes on,” Stu says, “another week? I think there’s going to be a lot more anger towards us.”

“But if it lasts a month, I think we’ll have more support than we do now,” I say. “There’s peaks and valleys.”

Liz rallies us all in front of the school. She reads us the Boston Teachers Union letter. We clap and cheer.

Hal is on the roof. He takes photos of all of us and a few of me.

My self-concept is not in synch with reality. I think of myself as dignified. An ambassador type. In the photos I seem insubstantial, wispy. A pale-skinned scarecrow with wood splinter limbs and a haunted hawkish face. Something out of a horror movie. Ah, vanity, it never fully leaves you.

We plan to attend the Saturday rally tomorrow. Most everyone leaves.

I lose ten precious minutes to a conversation about the inequalities in the school system. I feign outrage but I’ve tired with the constant moral indignation.

Soon, I am biking home. My mind stays blank for most of it. It’s all physical sensations. The sound of crunching rocks, the working thigh muscles, the sun above in its blazing indifference.

5.

There’s been some misconceptions. We aren’t paid during the strike. We aren’t striking for money. We aren’t greedy vicious hateful racist pigs. We aren’t purveyors of avarice. We are not haters of children.

The strike has three major components: working conditions, public education, and the union’s right to protect its members.

The working conditions piece speaks to the nuts and bolts of our profession. This is the salary increases (we can’t negotiate our salaries ever, so some type of incremental increase is essential); the proposed new evaluation system (we already have an evaluation system in place. We refuse to be graded on the student test scores, for a variety of good if not easily explicable reasons); class sizes, and so on (which we, alone in the state of Illinois, are not allowed to strike over).

The public education piece has to do with social justice and equal access to a good education. The city has consistently underfunded public education in a variety of ways. The worst schools are in the poorest neighborhoods, almost uniformly, and these schools also have a dearth of resources. For instance, I interviewed at a job in a very destitute area and the students, at the end of the year, didn’t have enough textbooks. Their playground was a parking lot. They played football on concrete. They had a handful of working computers in the entire school. Contrast this with my first job, which had a computer lab on every floor, and a separate computer lab for every six classrooms. I bet anyone could guess which school has better test scores.

The mayor and his ilk see the problem as abstracted—just numbers on a spreadsheet—with a practical solution. Shut down failing schools, fire all the failing teachers, and let charter schools take over. This releases the mayor from accountability, and it’s cheaper, in a way. But the idea that teachers making less money, with less credentials, will provide struggling students with a better education makes no kind of sense. Yet, that is what the mayor wants to do.

And he wants to replicate this in over one hundred neighborhoods. That’s union jobs eliminated—one lady on the news called it downsizing—and that’s less money going into neighborhoods that really need more. A teacher working in Englewood should make $150,000 a year. Then the best teachers in the world would try to get that job. (And yet, Englewood schools would still have low test scores.)

Finally, the union piece. There’s been a national movement to eliminate or dis-empower public sector unions. Wisconsin and New Jersey both in the past few years saw a significant decrease in the teachers’ union’s ability to collectively bargain. Charter schools are part of the problem. They are fiercely anti-union. (One charter school fought the unionizing process for two years.)

We are fighting in part for our right to exist.

6.

I’ve been through a tornado, a house fire, the death of a dog, and three minutes of CPR for my oldest daughter. But this strike—the facets to it, the swirl of vitriol and misinformation, the heft of it, its dimensions and nooks and crannies—it’s in some sense more terrifying than the other travails. A cloud of uncertainty. If we lose, if all of this were for nothing, I don’t know. The job would feel tarnished. I would feel betrayed by my profession.

I recall some of the things I’ve said and heard the last few days.

Such as, “The U.S. has had a containment policy since Johnson. We do good work in a bad system.”

And, “We’re operating under an industrial model. Our educational system in the whole country is hopelessly outdated.”

And, “You got your handout, too. You were born white in the U.S., there’s your handout.”

And, “They demonize Karen Lewis because she’s a strong, black woman with a shrill voice who’s overweight. If she looked like Paul Ryan, the criticism would be different.”

And, “We should declare victory, and take the board’s latest proposal.” (This last one is from me, not my most courageous hour.)

7.

Hannah calls mid-afternoon. Turns out the word choad has two meanings. She actually looked it up. “And, as a teacher, I thought I would be remiss if I didn’t share them both with you. And, oh, the strike isn’t yet over. They say there’s a framework, but not an agreement.”

I hang up. I tell Beth. I go over the mistakes I’ve made due to the psychic dissonance in the atmosphere. I feel that queasy dread in my insides. The idea of this going for four or five more days fills me with profound weariness.

Simone naps. Beth goes to work out. I play with Pearl. She crawls for the first time. Only five months old. She’s some kind of advanced superhuman.

“Maybe she’ll be an Olympian when she grows up,” Beth says.

I spend too much time looking for the video of me Brian mentioned. Ah, vanity, there you are again. I never find the video. It’s just as well.

Night and I’m making dinner. Beth has our daughters at the park. The apartment is quiet. I realize I haven’t listened to a single piece of music all week. And there’s that about this process, too—it squeezes out the simple pleasures, the small joys.

Day five is over. I stumble through Jack’s nightly walk. It’s only 11 and I can’t keep my eyes open. Sleep comes quickly. I don’t remember my dreams.


[1] Not his real name, of course.