I am 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.)
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 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.
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.
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 distractable. 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
– Ben Beard –
 Not his real name, of course.