The Chicago Teachers Union held a large rally on September 15, 2012 in Union Park. I went as a parent of children in a Chicago public school. It sounded like it was going to be a huge event and I wanted to experience it for myself and have my children experience it as well. Here are my Top 10 Moments of that day:
1. Preceding the Union Park Rally, my kids’ school had a “Honk For Support” gathering at the corner of Western and Montrose. At one point during the honking, a car flew alongside the curb. Its driver jumped out, and addressed our group. He was a member of the CTU, on his way to a wedding in Wisconsin, but he felt compelled to lead us in a song. He sang his way through a few lyrics, one of which he made up, then jumped back into his car and sped on north. It happened fast, but what remained was the idea that you don't always need a plan to add your voice to a cause, or to get involved. Sometimes, you can just seize the moment when it presents itself, and in doing so, add a boost of energy to a whole lot of people.
2. At the Union Park rally I was astounded at the unexpectedly clean porta-potties. I've used porta-potties at outdoor events my whole life and never, ever have they been this spotless. Usually I have to open a few doors before I find one I can stomach long enough to use. These were spic and span from the beginning to the end of the event. I could actually use the john of any door I opened! Ladies know that this is unheard of in the world of portable toilet use. I'm not sure if you can tell a lot about a group of folks by how neat they pee, but if you can, this bodes well for teachers.
3. In a related story, at one point my eleven-year-old son needed to use the facilities. The line of porta-potties weren't too far away, less than half a block, from where we were standing, but there were throngs of moving folks, all dressed in red, in between here and there. It wasn't the easiest place to retrace your route, since nothing looked very distinctive and everyone was constantly moving. My son assured me he was old enough to go alone. "Please Mom. I can go by myself". So with some hesitancy I agreed. I don't know how many of you have lived through the “clipping of the lines”, as the balloon that is your child lurches closer to being tether free of you, his parental mooring, but this was a "line being cut moment" for me. I agreed to letting him go alone, watching his red clad body walk away from me, in a park I had never been to before. He blended in with all the other red clad bodies and was quickly absorbed by them. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't anxious. In a couple of minutes I saw his Cubs hat bobbing back towards me, the fan wearing it walking a little more confidently, a little taller than when I had last seen him, with one less tether between us
4. It was really hot during the rally speeches. My nine-year-old daughter has little tolerance for heat. When she was barely two years old she would climb out of bed, unable to sleep. Her solution was to sit on the edge of the bathroom sink and plunge her feet into ice water. What would shock the rest of us awake, would produce a sense of calm in her. The frigid water enabled her to relax and fall asleep. I often whispered to my husband during those moments that we had a changeling. Years later I figured out she had some sensory perception issues, but that she was indeed our flesh and blood. Heat is not her friend and the rally was held in an open field under direct sun. There were reporters and cameras all over the place, randomly shooting pictures and interviewing people. At one point my daughter threw herself against my chest yelling "I can't take this anymore! I’m hot! I want to go home!" I scanned the immediate area for reporters. Since I was wearing red along with all the teachers, it would have been easy to assume I was a teacher too. I figured with my luck, a shot would be snapped and a caption attached saying "Teacher forces child to listen to Karen Lewis while standing in sweltering field." Shade and cold water were found and my daughter was back to her old self again. I will remember though, the idea of how easily our situation could have been misrepresented.
5. While listening to one of the speeches, there were several, we managed to get close to the side of the stage, near some trees. We saw some kids hanging out up in the branches. My daughters asked if they too could climb up in the tree. I said sure. So here's the thing, a guy (teacher?) was blocking the climb upward. The tree V-ed off into two trucks very close to the ground. He had his back braced on the inside of one trunk and his two big feet propped up on the other. There were two kids in the branches above his feet, but room for more...like my two kids more. I told my older daughter to go ahead, say excuse me, and start climbing. I figured the guy would move his feet as soon as he saw she wanted to go up. Well, no, in point of fact he didn't. She said, "Excuse me" a few times and when he wouldn't acknowledge her, wouldn't move his feet for even a second. She then tried to crawl OVER his feet. He just leaned there, not budging. I was about to say something to him, but I kind of wondered how long he'd let this go on. Sometimes I like to see just how bad human behavior has fallen. I also like to give people the chance to do the right thing without having to prompt them. This guy never moved his big fat Keens. We live in the city for cripes sake! When a city kid gets any kind of opportunity to catch a frog, skip a stone or CLIMB A TREE, you let them have it! This is why some parents have issues with the CTU. If that guy was a teacher, this demonstrates once again, how the union protects teachers who deny kids access to tree climbing.
6. After listening to all the speeches we finally started our march down Damon Avenue. We walked beneath the whirr of several helicopters, chanting and singing and waving to the people standing on their doorsteps. As we marched shoulder to shoulder with other parents and teachers, my son started blowing one of the red whistles that had been handed out earlier. Shrill would be a pretty accurate description of these particular whistles. Apparently, he blew it a little too close to my daughter's ear. She responded in the way many of us parents know a nine year old girl responds when her older brother teases her.... she kicked him. She did it without losing the rhythm of the chant or the timing of her march I might add. This time however, a camera guy was indeed right next to us. I imagined that copy reading "Surrounded by teachers, a boy fails to get assistance as he is assaulted during CTU march." So far no shot of this has surfaced in any media outlet.
7. At one point during the march I walked up to a cop and gestured toward the massive crowd "Any of these folks giving you any trouble officer?" I asked. I could tell he thought I was serious at first, then he relaxed, smiled and said "Not in the least. They've been great. Every one of them". I think the men in blue were pulling for the folks in red.
8. On the way home from the rally, we saw a bride and groom posing for their wedding portrait...on an L platform! I thought, how cool is that? Sure you could use Buckingham Fountain, or Garfield Park, but how cool is the juxaposition of a pristine bridal gown against the gritty soot of the train station? How great for my kids to see, and for me to be reminded, that going the way of non-convention often leads to creative ideas, and that you don’t have to do things the traditional way…even when decked out in a traditional gown.
9. After coming home we walked to our car, parked by my kids’ school. There was the ecology instructor, Pete Leki, watering the garden. He had led the pre rally walk to Western and Montrose and I saw him at some point during the rally at Union Park. It had been a long day and my kids and I were ready to go home, but here was Mr. Leki, working in his garden. "It's like a child or a pet." Pete said, "It needs to be taken care of." Despite an unexpected crisis, like an illness, like the loss of a loved one, like a teacher's strike, life goes on. Sure the teacher’s strike was a disruption in the lives of all of us, but seeing Pete hand my son a cucumber off the vine, and watching him teach my daughter how to cup her hand, just so, in order to drink from a hose, "a life skill" he said...was a lovely illustration of how we all need to keep tending to our lives, because no matter how many unplanned things happen to us, life goes on.
10. Although not at the rally itself, what will no doubt end up being my strongest memory is a moment I experienced while picketing outside of Alderman Mell's office. Right off the bat, there was the teacher from Roosevelt High School blowing "We're Not Gonna Take It Anymore" on a tuba. That's right. A tuba. Hard not to smile when you are listening to Twisted Sister being pushed through that big piece of brass. More than that moment though, more than any other really, was the moment provided once again, by ecology educator Pete Leki. He was at this group gathering too, outside the office of a city councilman. Abandoning the chants and sign waving for a moment, Pete asked for the megaphone and began singing a song through this archaic amplification tool. Amazingly, there was no distortion. Everyone stopped their efforts to extract car horn honks, to instead listen to the words Pete was singing in his low smooth voice. "What is the name of this song?" I asked a teacher, "It's beautiful". "It is beautiful isn't it?" she answered without taking her eyes off of Pete. "It's an old protest song, called "Which Side Are You On?" A woman wrote it years ago. Pete told me the history of it, but I can't remember it now". So melancholy was this tune, the words pleading, more yearning in their quality than demanding, as it asked, “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?". My eyes stung slightly and I could see dampness forming on the eyes of other adults around me. This wasn't the "What do we want? A fair contract! When do we want it? Now!" dictate, insisting on immediate action. This was a simple question, set in a haunting minor key "Which side are you on?" and then asking it a second time as if the answer was just not coming swiftly enough "Which side are you on?" I cannot personally relate to the teachers wanting a “fair contract”, but I can relate to wanting answers to questions. I've been asking questions regarding public education for years. So this song resonated with me, not from a union standpoint, but from an education advocacy stance. I'd like to know too "Which side are you on?'
When I got home. I looked up the history of "Which Side Are You On?" It was written in 1931 by Florence Reece. Her husband Sam was a union organizer for copper miners. One night a few men who opposed his work as a labor organizer threatened his life. He managed to escape his house but those who were intent on killing him terrorized Florence and her children. That night, after the thugs left her house, Florence wrote this song on the back of a calendar. It is a moving story, once again showing how art is often created out of pain.
I guess there is one last memorable moment. Hours after we got home, my kids and I were sitting in our living room, eating Subway sandwiches off of their paper wrappers, their reward for being such troopers. My kids were reliving the afternoon, sharing stories, reminding each other of funny moments and the moments that "sucked". At one point, my son turned to me and said "Hey mom? Thanks for bringing me to that rally. It was a really good thing for me to have experienced." I don't think I need to describe how that made me feel, why that moment is memorable. If you are a parent, you already know.