Archive for January 2012
When I started this serial last September 12, I promised there would be more to come. I didn’t think it would take me 4 months to deliver. So in case you don’t feel like digging back through The Seeker (and damn you for not feeling like it!), the gist of the matter is that I started writing a short story, “Anthropology,” rather spontaneously last spring. I got frustrated and put it away, and then stumbled on it last fall and thought it didn’t look all that bad. I decided to give it another go. I cranked out two complete drafts. The process of starting like a house on fire, burying the story, redisovering it, and rebuilding it helped me recognize my fiction writing pattern.
I had actually been planning on doing a lot of work on the story, especially over Christmas. I figured I needed to sit down with someone at a local Starbucks and do some interviewing. It seemed integral to the story since it takes place at a Starbucks. I wanted to sound authentic. But that interview never happened. I went in to talk to someone one day, but the place was busy and she never got around to me. So I bolted, figuring I would try again later. I thought I would do it during our recent work stoppage at school, but that didnt’ work out, either. Then I figured I’d wait around until I found time.
I read this totally awesome dystopian war story in The New Yorker two weeks ago, “A Brief Encounter With the Enemy.” I was stunned at how great it was. In fact, I found it so totally awesome that I read it twice and had a lengthy discussion about it with a colleague. Then I read an interview with the author, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. He talked about the boredom behind being totally faithful to current events, and how too many recognizable facts and details can interfere with storytelling. He mentioned that it is evocation that excites him more, and how artists can often get at something deeper if they approach their subjects obliquely. The lightbulb in my head clicked on. I realized that my story doesn’t have to be set exactly in a Starbucks, and that I had spent far too much time being fixated on that and worrying about how I would fit authentic Starbucks details into my story.
I sat down for several hours last weekend and wrote a second draft that generalized the cafe experience. And while I was feeling editorial, I took the story out of Chicago entirely, settling instead on a general urban setting. The more I worked at it, the better I started to feel about where the story was going. I worked more on the story Sunday morning, mostly beefing up an anorexic scene that screamed “lazy writing!” when I read over it. Now I’m considering two more tweaks before I send it to some friends. I’m eager to hear what they think.
Finally, I have realized I was committing a Writer’s Sin. I was moping around and waiting for something to happen with my story rather than asserting myself and looking for solutions. I wasn’t even experimenting with solutions. It’s the same thing I would henpeck my students for doing. So why do I let myself get away with it? Thankfully, not all my common sense as a writer was lost. I was still reading and thinking about other work by established writers, and that ended up making a big difference in what I’m doing with “Anthropology.”
I made the back pages of the print edition of the Chicago Tribune yesterday. A few colleagues mentioned that I look like a badass, appear to be pissed off, or that I resemble a teamster moreso than an English teacher… all of which I was going for! This is definitely a step up for me–the last time my picture was in the Trib, I was standing at a bar with two of my buddies.
That’s my long-time friend and co-worker Colleen Valentine sitting next to me. The photographer had just gotten out of her car and was kneeling in the parking lot across the street when she snapped this. She talked to us about the strike for quite a while as she took pictures.
We had our final pre-strike meeting at the union hall 9 days ago. We were joined by a number of veteran teachers and union members from neighboring districts who came to offer their support and impart wisdom born from their strike experiences. A common refrain among them was that upon re-entering the building after a successful strike, we would feel like we own the place. That felt like undue embellishment–or even hubris–to me, but I kept careful record of my emotions this morning from the time my alarm went off until I taught my first few classes of the day. I felt… like it was back to business as usual. That’s my default setting as a teacher, and one I am constantly striving to maintain. High school students need a “normal” setting, and classes function best when that setting is firmly established early and steadfastly maintained throughout the year, regardless of the ups and down. I lost about zero time discussing the strike and all its implications. That is mostly due to my class load, which is dominated by remedial freshmen. Most of them hardly know anything about the situation, weren’t impacted by it, or don’t care. We got back to business as usual quickly, and remained there all day. By the time I got to my upper classmen late in the day, they had been debriefed enough that the strike fit as comfortably into their schema as could be expected.
This isn’t to say that things didn’t feel different, it’s just to say that I didn’t feel like I own the building. But I do feel like I’ve weathered the most turbulent storm of my teaching career, one capable of wanton destruction, the wake of which I would be caught in for many years, and I know full well that I couldn’t have made it without my union brothers and sisters. There is a tremendous sense of security in that feeling, so more than anything else, I feel secure.
I should also mention that I feel well-fed–even over-fed. There was food all over the place on the picket line, and so much “welcome back” food in offices today that it might as well have been the day we go on Christmas vacation. So I guess it’s back to the regular workout routine for me.
One of the first pieces I ever wrote on The Seeker was this one about a school board in Texas that approved teachers to carry weapons as a means of school security: You and Your Local School Board. I cautioned at the end that school boards need to be monitored closely. Last winter, I wrote Watch Your Borders. It was about area Tea Party school board members in a neighboring district who were trying to put the screws to teachers sympathetic to the Wisconsin protestors opposing the over-the-top legislation proposed by Scott Walker that eventually eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees. Violating the constitutional rights of those teachers, and incurring untold costs in possible lawsuits, meant nothing to the people leading the charge. I never imagined while writing those pieces that they would essentially be a mash-up of what has happened in my district over the last year and a half.
Some of the tactics used against us were shrewd, methodical, and plotted far ahead of time so as to cause maximum devastation. Something as profound as cancelling the health insurance of an entire collective bargaining unit isn’t a step you take without knowing far ahead of time exactly how to do it legally. Other tactics were used for pure intimidation. If nothing else, some people have shown that not only are they bullies, but they are the worst kind: They connived far ahead of time exactly how to plunge their knives as deep into our backs as they could. How can those people ever be trusted again?
I can’t help but feel that if more people were watching the school board instead of letting them run rampant, so much of this could have been avoided. Had more stakeholders checked in with contract negotiations and took the board to task for refusing to talk to the union and walking away from negotiations, this could have been resolved earlier and perhaps without a strike. If there is one thing we know from history, it is that when good people fail to act, bad things can happen. I am convinced that Tea Party politics played a huge part in what happened. I think certain people were looking for a way to break the union’s back and to have their names at the top of the list of the gallant patriots who seized control of public education in Lake County. Once we gave in, the template would have been established and other districts would have followed it to the letter to break union solidarity. Thankfully, we held the line. Our unity helped win us a fair contract. How we did it can now be the template for other unions that find themselves in similar situations.
My back appears to be my Achilles Heel, if you’ll pardon the pun. If I remember anything from my time on the picket line, it will be the aches and cramps, and the spasms I’ve been dealing with for the last two weeks. They are all born from stress. I figured out yesterday that I have uncharacteristic cramps and tiredness because of the constant cold. My muscles are tense from shivering and trying to stay warm; add to that the time spent standing, and I’ve got back issues. This is to say nothing of the spasms, which I’ve had for quite some time in my adult life. They are my tell-tale sign of stress, and I’ve dealt with them long enough now to know how to minimize them (and even make them disappear relatively quickly). The rest of this stuff is all muscular and of little cause for concern long-term. Some rest, a few chiropractic adjustments and massages, and I’ll be back to normal–or at least have a normal back. Until then, I’ll have to manage as best I can. These are the consequences of a strike.
I woke up at 4:30 this morning to work out and get a head start on picketing. Before I went anywhere, though, I checked online and saw that the BOE and Union had reached a tentative agreement. Picketing was called off for the day, though union members were supposed to meet at the union hall early this afternoon to go over the particulars of the contract and vote to ratify. There would be a checkpoint, too, where we would have to prove identification. I went back to bed and slept extra long, which helped ease a lot of my stress, and did my normal workout once I woke up. Shortly after, I headed to the meeting.
You could feel the collective hopefulness once you entered the union hall. It cushioned my steps and raised my chin. Looking around, it appeared that I wasn’t the only one who benefitted greatly from extra sleep. There were far fewer bags under eyes than I had seen for three days on the picket line, and nobody was burdened by the weight of sweatshirts, hats, gloves, and thick winter coats. Faces looked healthy and vibrant, whereas just yesterday they were pale and wind-beaten. We all looked younger, in a way we all seem to when we return from summer vacation. Surprisingly, the negotiations team looked somewhat rested. There was no media allowed in the room, but there were photographers circulating.
Two announcements were made right away: We would stay as long as we needed to take care of business, and the tentative agreement is not a panacea. We then got right down to the nitty gritty of the new deal. In short time, I understood how my pay was going to be impacted for at least the next three years (and likely far beyond that since I’m near the top of the pay scale), plus how my insurance coverage was going to change. I had suspicions about the insurance coverage since that was a major sticking point, but it worked out well enough for me that I have no complaints.
I cast my vote at 3:23pm, knowing full well that it was a pivotal decision that will impact the rest of my life, and one I hope to not have to make again in three more years.
An hour later, the word was out: The union ratified the agreement.
We have a four-year old technology school in my district, and because of the nature of how it was staffed, the teachers there are young and with little experience. Of the thirty of so teachers, only one is tenured. I was thinking about how critical the tech school staff is to our cause, and figured that I would spend most of today with them in the hopes that having some more experienced bodies in their mix would bolster their enthusiasm and bouy the feeling of comradery, similar to what I experienced when I walked station to station Friday. I showed up at 7:15; it was 30° and windy. The sun hadn’t yet made it up. There were 25 of us huddled together.
It wasn’t long before I learned that the only thing more difficult that standing on a picket line in freezing temperatures is sitting on a picket line in freezing temperatures. I brought some chairs, and eventually sat in one for a while and chatted with a long-time coworker, but couldn’t take it anymore once my legs froze. I got on my feet and walked laps around the school until 11am, and then headed for some lunch. After lunch, the sun had broke free from the morning cloud cover and was fully ablaze in the sky. It made a huge difference, though the wind was still substantial.
The lot of us continue to be amazed at how great the weather has been, despite the coldness early on today. But I think this morning was a shot across the bow. Mother Nature is warning us to get these issues wrapped up. If we think this morning was cold and uncomfortable, it’s nothing compared to the punishing frigidity she routinely dishes out at this time of year. According to the forecast, we have two more days before the high temperatures will be lower than the lowest temps we’ve experienced thus far.
Not that it matters to me. Sure I’d love it to be warmer and more comfortable, but I’ll be damned if the temperatures and conditions keep me away from my due diligence on the line.
We had a strong showing by both retirees and students. There were no less than two dozen students out with us most of the day, and most of them were fresh faces that weren’t around yesterday. The retired football coach was out today, too. He provides a substantial physical presence, and is also a member of the community and staunch supporter of our cause. I couldn’t help but feel some sense of reassurance when he told us he had called board members and even tried to enter the school to talk with people.
I’ve been awed by the support we’ve received all around. What’s more, I can’t complain about how we’ve been treated–I never expected to be so well-fed! Not only did we have a decent supply of food from within our ranks, but outside food came in a steady flow throughout the day. Somebody from Rhode Island called in a massive pizza delivery for us by way of a pizza place in a neighboring suburb. Students prepared sweets and brought them to us. Water continues to be delivered, along with coffee and donuts. If I’m not careful, I’ll end up gaining weight.
Today I learned that it’s hard as hell to stand for long periods of time. Two hours in this morning, and my lower back was tired. It usually manifests itself that way through numbness and a bit of achy crampiness. What worries me most is that I’m at a peak level of fitness in my life, and I’m feeling the physical effects early on in the strike. I don’t know how others are handling it. If it’s any comfort, it will be different if we’re still on strike come Monday. We won’t be spending the entire day, but are expected to work at least a two-hour shift.
Walking eases the crampiness and restores the feeling in my back. That’s the primary benefit–the secondary is that I can walk station-to-station and see what’s up elsewhere along the picket. I’ve spent quality time talking with colleagues who I never see and would otherwise never have time to say anything to, much other than “Hello” or “Good morning.” That’s an odd circumstance with teaching: We can be quite tribal, but not necessarily by choice. Each subject area has its own mindset. Science and math can be very analytical, even black and white in terms of how they see things. Social studies can be political. English, of course, is very literary and intellectual. Those cognitive bonds keeps us together and enrich us, no different than a group of friends who loves NASCAR or Dungeons and Dragons. Furthermore, each department has its own office, and our classrooms are clustered together. Hence, we see the most of others in our department, and tribalism results. Given this, if the Board of Education wants to fracture our unity, keeping us on the picket line is having the opposite effect. When I see a math teacher and a shop teacher who are as angry as my department members and me, and who are willing to grit their teeth over a numb, crampy back and endure the elements, that strengthens my resolve.
The strike protesters were out again today, too, for about half an hour. They seem to be led by the township supervisor, who yesterday could be found crying on the Chicago area news about the dire financial circumstances in Zion and how the union is asking for too much–the taxpayers can’t afford this, dontchaknow? As township supervisor, she makes $85K a year, plus benefits (and that includes $5K a year to put towards her own education). Around Illinois, the average salary for her position is about $30K. The taxpayers are forking out for her, and she makes more than most of the teachers and all of the support staff in the district. So tell me: Who can’t afford whom? The school has provided phenomenal support to her and her causes for many years, but it looks now like there might be a significant change in that. That’s one of the tragedies of a strike, though: Bridges get burned, and they sometimes never get rebuilt. You go in knowing that, but you also go in knowing who is on your side.
Elsewhere, the tit-for-tat is in full swing. The Board of Education cancelled health insurance for the entire bargaining unit this morning (even those who are not with us), but now they have to deal with garbage build-up since the local sanitation workers have refused to pick up the district’s garbage. They won’t cross the picket line. Symbolically, that feels just about perfect.
Finally, someone drove by about 2PM this afternoon and yelled out, “I hope you get everything you deserve!” Most of us waved or pumped a fist in the air, taking it as a nice show of support. But it’s also a masterful example of double-entendre.
The strike became a reality this morning at 6am when the district auto-dialer my rang my number. The superintendent’s voice came across the speaker and announced that due to failed contract negotiations, school would be closed. I could take you through the issues step-by-step, but I’m tired from picketing all day. Check out this video clip from a regional news broadcast; it nails the issues at stake pretty evenly:
My feet were on the ground at 7:10am, which is about 20 minutes earlier that I usually show up for work. I was anticipating warmer weather throughout the day, so had dressed a little lighter than I wish I had. Still, a t-shirt, flannel shirt, squall jacket, stocking cap, and a double-layer of thin gloves was enough to hold off the 24-degree chill.
I stationed myself at the main entrance to the school, along with about 15 other teachers. We deliberately paced back and forth, having been informed that we shouldn’t be standing but rather walking, and that if we were walking everything was okay. There just wasn’t any hurry to get anywhere. Also, since we were technically crossing the street, we had to touch the curb on both sides.
A cop rolled down the driveway at 7:30 and demanded that we stay off the sidewalks and crosswalks. Instead we were supposed to stand behind barriers about 40 feet up on the front lawn of the school. She also told us to stop blocking cars from entering or leaving. This was the first major tension of the day: The sidewalks and crosswalks are public and we have every right to walk on them for as long as we wish. Several of us shouted such to her, and informed her that nobody had been blocked entering or leaving–the driver she had seen leaving just one minute previous stopped voluntarily, rolled down her window, and was asking us questions. We didn’t mention that she sounded very supportive. None of us moved. I kept pacing, thinking to myself that even if nobody else keeps crossing and recrossing, that I was going to. I started to wonder what cold metal was going to feel like around my wrists, and was ready for it.
Two more cops showed up to form a constabulatory huddle and discuss who knows what. We kept moving. Nothing else was said.
The sun broke out in the open by 7:40, and things began to warm up. By the end of the day, it was 45 degrees, bright and sunny. Despite that, my nose was red and drippy throughout.
We received an incredible amount of support from the community today. There were at least a dozen students picketing with us, plus numerous other local union representatives stopped by to walk with us, chat for a few minutes, and let us know they were behind us all the way. People showed up unexpectedly with cases of water, boxes of coffee, donuts, candy, and words of encouragement.
I wish I could say that everybody we saw today was hospitable and encouraging. We had several flare-ups of jackass behavior from angry residents. One woman sped past the school, hung her head out the window, and screamed that we were crazy and that we needed to get back to work. An old man slowed his truck at the west entrance to the school at 2pm and screamed, “Get back in there and get to work!” I don’t think he took out repeated responses of “Thank you! Have a nice day!” as sincere. There was a group of six community members across the street from us early this morning, protesting the strike. They lasted about a half hour.
We were mooned by somebody around noon. I wasn’t sure if it was a show of support or dissention.
I got home at 3:45. My legs were cramped; dead. I slept for almost three hours on the futon.
The auto-dialer called at 7:30 this evening. We’re back on the picket line tomorrow.