September 12, 2012
I went down to the union rally in the Loop on Monday, the first day of the teachers strike, not knowing what I'd find or even what I wanted to.
It was a startling, thrilling sight.
Thousands of red shirts were swarming south on Clark Street, chants rising toward the tops of skyscrapers, protest signs bobbing in the September sun.
One teacher leaned toward another and said quietly, "History in the making."
The first word that sprang to my mind was simply: wow.
Wow, there sure are a lot of teachers in this town. So imagine how many students. No wonder the public school system is hard to manage. It's its own nation within this sprawling nation called a city, a city that reaches from the heights of wealth to the darkest poverty, in which no two schools are the same.
The second word that popped to mind: normal
These were not fringe protesters. This was the face of Chicago's middle class, faces just like your neighbors, the people in the grocery, the parents of all those kids who are out of school this week while adults argue over who's putting them first.
Then a third word: power
This was serious power, this ability to mobilize, to gather, to push back against the potent forces of big money and high government. Here was an army made visible.
I stopped to talk to Jensine Fitzgibbons, a 30-year-old speech pathologist. She had a friendly, sensible air about her and carried a sign that read: "Hey, Rahm! You have AC while we sweat with the students! We need AC!"
Air conditioning? That was her main concern?
Not the only one, she said, but she'd spent the summer in a school where the administrators had air-conditioned offices while the teachers and students sweated through the 100-degree days. Not equitable or conducive to learning, she said, or like the suburbs where she used to work.
"When was air conditioning invented?" she said. "Why are we still living in the past?"
I heard variations of her remarks over and over. Not just about the AC or about Rahm. But about the power gap, the respect gap, the gulf between teachers and students on one side and, on the other side, the mayor ("a prince," one teacher scoffed) and his wealthy school board.
Who gets what? Who gets more? Who gets heard? Who gets taken for granted, by the public and the Democratic Party?
Those are the psychological questions that help steer the debate over hiring, evaluations and standardized tests.
Fights don't always have villains.
You wouldn't know it from the schoolyard taunts that have been thrown around in this one, but wherever you fall in this debate, it's false to say that only one side cares about the kids. They both do.
I admire the teachers for pushing back, which is not the same as thinking they're right on every count. But they don't deserve to be vilified for fighting for what they want and what they believe in.
We all do that, don't we? If we can?
The teachers strike so far has been an inconvenience to parents, to kids, to drivers in the Loop. It has been chaotic. But it hasn't been catastrophic.
We should be glad to live in a city that's not afraid of a fight over the things that matter. But if fights don't always have villains, they do have winners and losers.
If the teachers want to win, they need to find a way back into the classroom soon.
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