Golden Apple finalist didn't expect to be unemployed so long

Diana O'Connor remembers it as the strangest day of her life.

A Monday last February. She came home from work and checked her mail, expecting the usual bills.

What she found instead was a letter telling her that she was a finalist for the prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.

That's not the strange part.

The strange part is that a few hours earlier, on the same day she learned she'd been singled out as one of the best teachers in Illinois, she had been asked to resign from the music teacher's job she held for three years at Lakes Community High School in the northwest suburb of Lake Villa.

She says the principal (who declined to comment for this column) told her she wasn't "a fit" for the program. Someone younger was hired.

Ever since that strange day, O'Connor has been looking for work, a quest that led her to email me recently with the subject line, "The face of long term unemployment."

Here's part of what she wrote:

"I am a responsible adult, well-educated and have always looked out for those less fortunate than I. I am not accustomed to being someone who may need help. Is there any way that you can shed light on this situation for the Chicago community to see that there are people like me out there? We are not out of work because we are lazy. We are out of work because of layoffs, or office politics, through no fault of our own."

The long-term unemployed.

We hear the phrase all the time. Congress debates whether to extend their benefits. President Barack Obama encourages businesses to give them a better shot.

It can be easy to forget that "they" are us.

"I'm your sister, I'm your neighbor, somebody you go to church with," O'Connor said when I called her.

It wasn't so long ago that O'Connor was a married woman in a two-income family. Now, at 49, she is divorced, unemployed and raising two teenagers on her own.

"You wake up one morning thinking you're part of the middle class," she said, "and the next day you're filling out Medicaid forms."

When she lost her job, O'Connor didn't lose hope of finding one. She may not have won a Golden Apple, but she was named a Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction, an honor that she noted in the 50 cover letters she sent out with the 50 resumes. She had supporters.

"She's passionate about music and so caring about her students," says Frank Lestina, the recently retired fine arts supervisor at Vernon Hills High School, where O'Connor worked as choir director for several years. "She's meant to be a teacher."

After she left Lakes Community High School in May, O'Connor waited to hear back about her 50 job applications. She says she got two interviews, but otherwise her phone didn't ring. Her emails went unanswered.

She couldn't help but think of all the tales she'd heard of job applicants whose applications were discarded because they had too much experience, meaning they cost too much money.

She spent the autumn and early winter subbing in schools here and there whenever the call came, typically a couple of days a week, for $10 an hour.

She gets child support, and that has helped, along with unemployment benefits.

"She's an amazing educator," says Carol Broos, an administrator at the Golden Apple Foundation. "She is so caring and giving about every single kid. I call her the pit bull for kids. She advocates for every child. Especially the child that needs an extra hand. She truly is the face of unemployment in middle age."

O'Connor's unemployment benefits are scheduled to run out this month, the same month she turns 50. She still is sending out resumes, doing odd jobs, volunteering. She had a Medicaid interview last week, she said, and was told she qualifies.

There are many faces of the long-term unemployed. O'Connor wants her story to be seen as just one of many, and she knows that she's not the worst off.

"I have a place to live, and I can keep my family fed and warm," she said. "I have it better than most, but this is not how I thought my life would be."

Not long ago, her 78-year-old mother took her grocery shopping and told her to buy whatever she wanted, which she did for the first time in months.

When the bill came — $350 — she cried.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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