Lessons From the Corner

“Here comes some more red people!” my five year old yelled from the back of my van. “Roll down the windows Mom!” directed my 11 year old.  So I did.  As my three children and I headed towards their school, we passed several groups of  “red people” better known as Chicago Public School teachers, dressed in their solidarity color, standing on corners, picketing during their strike.  I honked my horn, slowed down as my nine year old yelled out “We love you!” My five-year-old “Go teachers!” My eleven year old son a simpler “yeah”.  We repeated this three or four times with different groups of picketers, before we reached our school, our red people, our teachers. This was the first day, day one of the teacher’s strike, but we repeated it day two, and day three, and day four.

On that first day, day one, we found the teachers from my children’s school a block away from the school doors.  They were standing on a busier street, in part because more people would see them, in part because they did not want to disturb the neighbors who lived in the homes surrounding the school.  My kids, also in red, were met with hugs from their teachers. My youngest daughter had just started kindergarten the week prior.  Her teacher came up, gave her a huge embrace and told her she missed her and then asked me how she was doing. My sixth grade son’s math teacher asked how my son was doing and then touched on a quiz he had given the week earlier. My daughter’s fourth grade teacher walked over to me and the first words she spoke were “How is she (my daughter) doing?” These were not greedy, lazy, people who were “in it for a paycheck”. These were wonderful, caring human beings, who are, by their profession, key players in my children's lives. Which is why I was there, at that corner, with my kids.  I wanted to let them know, these specific teachers, not the collective mob identified in the media and editorials as the CTU, but these known to me personally teachers, that I value them and the impact they have on my children.

Since that first morning of the teacher’s strike, I have had several conversations with other CPS parents.  More than a few kept away from the picket lines, wondering what lesson it would be teaching their kids if they showed up. Most were very conflicted about this.  No parent I know actually WANTED a strike, and if they are with the “red people” are they then, by their presence, perceived as a strike proponent or worse, a fan of the union?

During the strike I tried to provide my three kids with some “home schooling”. I printed out worksheets from education websites. Dug out old workbooks designed to combat summer “brain drain” and used the time off to…and this is hard to believe…elevate my mean mom status to heights even I didn’t know I could reach.  For I am the mom who “cares more about school than any other mom in the whole world”. It’s true. Not just Chicago…the “whole world”. Three out of three kids agree. Those printouts didn't provide the real lessons being learned though. I'm not cut out for academic home schooling. I did however, teach my kids a few things by standing with their teachers on the strike line. At least I hope I did.

For starters, just showing up, being present during a crisis, teaches  kids that you support the people you care about, the people who have supported you.  I do this in other arenas. I've grabbed my keys and flown out the door in response to an emergency room call. I've paid my respects and offered my comfort during wakes and funerals. So I have touched on this lesson before. I do not expect my kids to be anyone's rock in a crisis, not while they are still in their childhoods. This strike is complicated and it is a conflict between adults.  I do not expect my children to have the perspective, and ego and emotional security required to support those who are taking a stand for something they believe in.  I also didn’t expect my kids to read when they were toddlers, but I modeled reading and I encouraged it.  By standing next to teachers, giving them a hug, listening to their perspectives, I am modeling to my kids that you offer support to those you care about when they are going through a difficult time. Dressed in red, standing with their teachers, demonstrated to my kids that regardless of how we feel about the strike, we support these men and women, as individuals.  We value them and the roll they have played over the years in our lives. Sure a passer by might perceive our presence as pro-strike, but who cares? You don't let the perceptions of strangers stop you from supporting a friend.  

By standing with their teachers on the picket line I was also teaching my kids that you do not make a judgment about an individual based on their profession.  I find it incredulous that people who pride themselves on not modeling bigotry to their children are doing so in this instance.  All teachers are greedy? All teachers are lazy?  All teachers don’t care about the kids?  "All teachers" are no more one thing then all garbage collectors are one thing, or doctors, or athletes, or roofers or police offers, any other profession you can name.  When I show up to the picket line I am teaching my kids that within every group, every collective, there are individuals, with lives and stories all their own.  You do not judge individuals by their skin color, religious affiliation, country they come from, nor by the jobs they hold.

The third lesson is maybe the most important.  This strike gave me the opportunity to teach my kids that there are many, many sides to a story, to an argument, to a situation. Over and over and over again we have discussed the different perspectives to this strike.  I had no lesson plan for this.  It evolved every time one of my kids asked “Does Rahm hate teachers?” “Are the teachers mad at Brizard?”  “Why did that guy hold up his middle finger at us?” and "Mom who is right in all of this?"  Each of those questions was a springboard to discussing points of view, perspectives and perceptions. You know how as a parent you see or hear adults saying or doing something and you think, "Oh jeez, I hope my kid does not grow up to be like that?"  This is how I felt every time I read a comment posted after an article saying, "Wake up people! Teachers are producing morons at the tax payers expense". Or "Troll Rahm is playing that group of idiots, the CTU like a fiddle."  One particularly memorable moment was provided by a driver. As my kids and I stood with our teachers, a guy driving by yelled out to them "Get back to work you mother f-ers!” and flipped them off.  These creatonesque comments and actions make me think "Wow, I do not want my kids to grow up expressing themselves like that". 

The strike offered an opportunity to show my kids that there is not always a  right or wrong in a situation. In fact, most situations do not have a clear cut good guy and bad guy.  Most situations have many sides to them and unfortunately most people do not want to listen to anyone's view but those that mirror their own.  My kids have been very frustrated over how much time I spent on the computer during the strike and how much time I spent talking to parents and teachers and education advocates.  I told them "I am trying to learn all I can about this situation. The best way for me to understand what is happening is to hear from lots of different people, different points of view." I have told my kids, I am not a teacher, so I don't know what is like to be in a classroom everyday.  I am not the CEO of a School District or the mayor of a large city, so I don't know the pressure those folks have to do their jobs either.  What I do know, is there are parts of Chicago that are very, very difficult to grow up in, and many many teachers and children and parents in those areas face challenges that are very different from those we experience.  I know that money is tight for the city and the folks that dole out the money have to watch their expenses just like we as a family do.  I also know that if you are not open to hearing both sides of an argument you formulate an opinion with only part of the facts.  By talking to the teachers personallly, I gave my kids the opportunity to hear from the teachers themselves, how they felt about this strike. Contrary to what the media was reporting, they were not "in it for the money".  

I know that other parents view standing in a strike line very differently than I do. They feel it teaches a different set of lessons to their kids. I can see that perspective too. Of course the strike raised the discussion of first amendment rights, the history of labor in this country and the concept of contracts. Those were all broader, larger lessons. As, for the question “What are you teaching your children” by physically standing in the strike line? Well, by showing up on a corner supporting the "red people", I hope that I taught them that you support the people you care about regardless of how it looks to anyone else. You judge people as individuals, not by their professions. You acknowledge that there is not always a clear-cut right or wrong side to a disagreement, and that you will understand the situation better if you are open to seeking out information from as many sources as possible.  Oh yes, and the final lesson….when you grow up and find yourself driving past a group of folks on strike and there happens to be kids in the mix, don’t flip them off. You only make yourself look like a f-ing asshole.