Tag Archives: teachers’ strike

An open letter to Secretary Clinton. (Please don’t support Rahm Emanuel.)

10 Dec

Dear Secretary Clinton,

I am a public school librarian in Chicago and a former libertarian—raised into it—who ten years ago saw the light and realized that everything I believed was either wrong, misguided or predicated on outright lies.

I think you need to have a similar epiphany on the mayor of my adopted city, Rahm Emanuel. And I’m going to try and make you see the light.

He is a snake. A wolf. A carnivore. And he has, in his tenure in office, allied himself with the moneyed, the influential, the privatizing and the despicable, all at the expense of working Chicago people. Need proof? Look no further than the closure of 50 public schools in a single stroke of the pen—that’s 50 public schools in poor or struggling neighborhoods, all populated by people of color—and the subsequent firing of some 2000 teachers, aides, clerks and ancillary staff.

Fifty. Public. Schools. Gone in a flash.

The shootings of (often young) black males by the police in Chicago is nothing new. Neither is torture, graft, corruption, intimidation and blackmail. But a clear link between the malfeasance of our law enforcement higher-ups and the mayor himself? This is new. I won’t go into the evidence here—you just have to follow the known sequence of events to see that Rahm suppressed evidence so he could get re-elected—and I know the old canard that Chicago politics are always corrupt. But to support a mayor who has proven to be opposed to public sector unions, public education and also mangling an already damaged economy?

I don’t see it.

I know running for national political office is a byzantine and complicated game. I know there are compromises, backroom deals and (often) amoral metrics run against poll numbers. But Rahm Emanuel is bad for our city. He’s bad for the Democrat’s brand, and he’s just plain bad, period. He’s lowered our city’s credit rating. He’s outsourced public land to private companies to no material benefit to the taxpayer’s of Chicago. (Don’t believe me? Take a gander.) It’s a statistical fact that (okay, in almost every instance) privatizing costs taxpayers more. Yet Rahm keeps pushing it. Forget what Chicago might look like in 20 or even ten years; he wants his money now, goddammit.

Money over the future?

Back to the murders. The homicide rate has increased, partially—at least this is how it was reported to me—due to moving police units away from high-crime areas to focus on the shopping districts downtown.  This was, so it seems, a calculated decision.

Money over people?

His handpicked team of educational experts are now almost all working at other jobs, disgraced nationally, or on the way to prison. The latest misstep by his hand-picked squad was Ms. Byrd-Bennett, herself at the center of an ethics probe to the tune of 20 million dollars diverted out of the public school system into a company where she used to work. No-bid, no oversight, just filthy lucre changing hands.

Money over children?

And now this, the shooting and repression of not one, but as I understand it, two videos of unarmed black males. By the police. And a third video of a mentally ill black man being tased and dragged through the corridors of a Chicago jail; he died later that night. Rahm’s response was vague language over reform, and the firing of his hand-picked top cop. Let me say that again: his response was to fire the man he hired in the first place.

Loyalty (or something else) over the lives of black people?

He’s facing a second teachers’ strike—when before him we hadn’t had a strike here in decades—and his blasé, uncaring (and to me, cruel) attitude towards the working teachers and paraprofessionals is abhorrent.

I have three questions that need answering.

How? Why? What? How can you still believe in him? Why would you still believe in him? What are you doing, in a national presidential election, affirming this man during your campaign?

A higher murder rate. A history of autocratic (and this is a generous description) behavior as mayor. The closure of 50 public schools. A downgraded bond rating. A pattern of privatizing public operations. Failed or failing policies. A dwindling inner circle of the vain and the arrogant and the power-hungry, all sliding into the dustbin of early retirement or the jaws of the justice department. Probes. Questions. Intimations.

You. Backed. This. Man?

Secretary Clinton, our mayor sees poverty, blight, violence, inequality as abstracted numbers on a page. Pieces of a political game called power. He sees the interlocking concerns of running a city—public transportation, utilities, employment, parks, public education and so on—as tradable commodities.

Or put another way: Rahm’s policies hurt people. A lot of people. Working families. Struggling families. Middle class families. Little children. Being harmed by our mayor.

Secretary Clinton, your political chops are not in question. You are, in the realm of politics, bona fide. But your moral and ethical barometers? They are, and have been, in the limelight. And placing support in Rahm isn’t any kind of way to reclaim some of the (previously lost) moral ground.

Please retract your support from our mayor.

Signed,

A voter.

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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.

First march under the hot sun and it was brilliant.

7 Sep

1.

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

But first, some background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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