Monday, October 22, 2012

A Very Rosh Hashanah Teachers Strike

My mom, who was a CPS high school French and Spanish teacher, died last March at the age of 92.  There were many Septembers when she would be walking the picket line.  My dad, who taught at Daley College, would be walking his picket line, too.  Never did I dream that, many, many years later, I would be a parent at the time of a teacher's strike.

As it became clear that a strike was imminent, I tweeted about my support for the teachers while at the same time hoping it would be short and sweet.  During the strike I would tweet things like, "Teachers strike, Day Four."  Or "Sanity Watch, Day Four."  Since my folks had been educators, I had a natural built in affinity for teachers.  The interior whine inside my head was, "The kids just went back to school.  Why do you have to do this now?"

I knew why it had to be right then.  I have seen two teachers leave their positions.  I have seen a third railroaded.  Whenever good teachers leave, kids lose out. Teachers neither have the resources nor the support they need to teach Gen Ed kids let alone the most challenging segment of the population.

As I walked south on Narragansett towards Oak Park, I encountered picket line after picket line. Was a beautiful day for a walk to shul.  Was a beautiful day to give a thumbs up to all the teachers I passed along the way.  For a while I was too emotional to speak.  I don't know if the teachers noticed that I had tears in my eyes.

Somewhere there is a photo of my mother from either the 60s or the 70s.  She is walking in front of Bowen High School, and talking with a woman with whom she had had violent disagreements about Israel and Palestine.  I remember many a time when she would come home fuming about her. But in that instant my mother is smiling as the two women walk in solidarity for a fair union contract.

As I walked past the men and women on the line,  I wondered if my mom were somehow able to witness the strike.  Towards the end of my walk, I was finally able to speak.  "With you in spirit," I called out. What I really meant was, "My mother is with you in spirit."  If she were still alive, she definitely would have been expressing her support.

Part of me wanted to ditch going to Rosh Hashanah services and hang out with the teachers.  I came really close to doing that.  I also knew that I needed a Rosh Hashanah experience, and so I propelled myself forward the final blocks to the church where this congregation holds High Holiday services.  As I
sat in the row, I felt I had the best of both Rosh Hashanahs.  Solidarity with striking teachers and praying with the secular Jews who resonate with my atheistic yet, yes, deeply spiritual connection with my Jewish roots.

I took a bus partway home.  As I walked the final few blocks, I saw sign after sign announcing Proud Union Home in solidarity with the members of Chicago Teachers Union, Local 1.  Better yet were the Support Our Teachers signs.  At  least one was homemade.

It did my heart good to see those signs.  I remember when even a friend's husband used to taunt my mom with "Those who can,do. Those who can't, teach."  I remember my mom telling me that some of our neighbors accused her of helping me learn to read, as if her being a teacher somehow made my early reading some kind of educational cheat.  I taught myself how to read, but what if she had helped me?  Isn't
it a teacher's job to teach?  What if our neighbors had been teachers?  Would they have begrudged their children any opportunity to learn?

I was grateful for the opportunity to connect with the teachers, even if only momentarily.  My mom inspired me to be a teacher.  I got a Master's in English and was a part-time instructor at several community colleges before moving on to the more stable job of legal proofreader.  I remember all those times, years after her retirement, when my mom would be stopped by former students.  "You don't remember me, but I was in your Spanish class."  Even when my mom was in the nursing facility after her last fall, middle aged women
put two and two together and realized that the elderly woman who looked vaguely familiar and eating at a table with their elderly mothers was none other than their former high school teacher.  Even in a nursing facility with many residents there for rehab, they were excited to see her.

The strike was at an inconvenient time, yet it was also the perfect time.  No better time to reflect on beginnings and endings and renewing connections.  So, thank you, Chicago Teachers Union, Local 1.  You gave me a Rosh Hashanah filled with meaning and one I will never forget.