What Police Are to Schools

White supremacy is real. White supremacy harms. White supremacy kills.

I taught for 7 years in North Lawndale and 4 years in East Garfield Park. During that time I listened to the testimony of Black students who were unfairly targeted by police on more occasions than I can count. I witnessed police officers in the community and inside the school building treat students disrespectfully, physically handling them in ways that wouldn’t be appropriate for an adult, let alone a child.

I remember one fight at school. It wasn’t a good situation – one student got so angry he tore my colleague’s classroom apart. But our school leaders and student Peace Warriors were handling it. We were getting things calmed down.

The police were called. They didn’t send counselors. They didn’t send someone to help defuse the situation. They sent a group of officers with vests and guns. They sent officers dressed all in black, large in size, with biceps you’d expect on professional athletes. They sent officers ready to physically engage with our children. I remember one in particular, flexing his hands, dancing back and forth on the balls of his feet, looking past me at the classroom where the students were talking with the dean.

I won’t repeat the words I heard them say. But I think about this event, and others, all the time. What were the officers planning to do? How would they have handled the situation if staff and teachers hadn’t been there, between them and the students? If our brilliant security guards hadn’t calmed the students and the officers?

When the police left, our counselors, the dean, the principal, and other community members helped calm the situation down. We helped my colleague set up his room again. Property had been damaged, but what is property next to human life? Why worry about physical objects when it is flesh and blood that matters?

The police as they are currently structured are a tool of white supremacy. The system prioritizes White people at the expense of Black people.

White people: Listen when people say they are being harmed. Believe Black people.

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Why I Strike (when I want to teach)

It’s Day 8 of the 2019 Chicago teacher’s strike and I’m a little stressed. It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve been in my classroom, almost two weeks since I’ve delivered a lesson, almost two weeks since I’ve seen my students. It’s October, for crying out loud – I’m supposed to be at school teaching, or learning, or both. So after today’s picket I went for a run along the lakefront to blow off some steam and clear my head.

I spent the entire four miles thinking about my middle school cross country athletes.

Our team is small – just me, another coach, and nine students. Still, the kids are dedicated runners, and they’re really starting to grow as a team. We had a student compete in our network’s regional meet, and every time we run they get stronger as individuals and as a unit. Every athlete supports their teammates. If a student falls behind, others run back to pump them up, improve their pace, get them to finish strong. They’re good kids, and I couldn’t be prouder to be their coach.

We made it two weeks before the strike stopped our season. I hate that students who made so much progress are sitting on the sidelines, not practicing, not building on their new skills. I want to be teaching. I want to be coaching.

But we had to strike – and we must continue the strike until our fair demands are met.

This is my first year in Chicago Public Schools, my first in the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Though I miss my kids and cannot wait to be back in school, right now a Chicago teacher’s place is in the streets.

You see, I know what things can be like at schools without a union focused on social justice issues. I spent 11 years teaching at non-union private and charter schools on the west side. Although each school did things well, each also violated student rights in surprising ways. I’ve seen students expelled for getting tattoos that couldn’t be hidden, getting in minor fights, and admitting to gang affiliation. I’ve also seen students with special needs go without services because their school did not comply with state law. I’ve seen students who’ve experienced intense trauma struggle in classes as large as 37, and had administrators tell me “good” teachers deal with classes that size without complaint. I’ve seen high teacher turnover, and seen students go without key support staff because their school let a position sit empty.

Unfortunately, conditions in some Chicago Public Schools aren’t any different. Still, the district has one advantage privates and charters lack: a strong public employee union. When positions are cut and resources withheld, teachers can fight back. When the district fails to follow state law, teachers can fight back. When the city government funnels millions of dollars into private development at the cost of our public goods, teachers can fight back.

Right now we’re waiting for the mayor and CPS to agree to a contract that ensures students at all schools have reasonable class sizes and access to social workers, counselors, librarians, and nurses. We’re waiting for the mayor to agree to a contract that ensures elementary school teachers have the time necessary to prep for their deserving students. We’re waiting for the mayor to put in writing the equity she paid lip service to on the campaign trail.

Until we get that contract, we will stay out on strike. We won’t be in the classroom, and we won’t be coaching our student-athletes. We have to do it. If the union does not fight to make an equitable, high-quality education accessible to every student in the city, no one will.

We owe it to our children to strike. We owe it to our city’s future.

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Dad

My dad died on Father’s Day, very suddenly and without warning, of a massive heart attack. He was 65, and I wish with every bit of my being that he’d been able to live longer. He was a good man, a kind man, a funny man, a difficult man. It seems incredibly cruel that he’s gone, and I don’t know when I’ll come to terms with it. But remembering him helps.

Here’s a bit of what I’m remembering today.

Dad - Animals

Animals. My dad loved animals. He majored in zoology at Michigan State University and considered becoming a veterinarian. Though he never did so, he used his knowledge and compassion to maintain an evolving menagerie of animals at home. It wasn’t unusual for us to have half a dozen dogs, a handful of cats, some goldfish, and even a convalescing finch or two around the house at a given time. Sometimes I think we had more dog, cat, and bird food in the pantry than anything fit for human consumption.

Away from home, he was always on the lookout for new creatures to show my sister and me… even while behind the wheel of a car. I was in not one, but two, animal-related accidents with my dad. Once he stopped to let a flock of geese cross the road and a guy in a sports car rear-ended us. The geese were safe, but my dad went to the hospital and the car was totaled. Another time we were on the way to have lunch with my grandma, driving along a road set atop a gentle rise carved out during Michigan’s glacial past. My dad saw a hawk out his window and pointed for my sister and I to look. So intent was he on the bird that he drove us right off the road and down the hill. We missed lunch while waiting for a tow truck, but I definitely remember the hawk.

Dad and Mom

Storytelling. My dad was not the most gregarious guy, but he had a set of stories he loved to tell – even if only he remembered them in the way he told them. Most of them featured anecdotes about my sister and me as kids, or something weird the dogs had done, or stuff he’d read online that he found too good to be true. In one, I didn’t want to eat my vegetables as a toddler, so I stood up in my highchair and shouted, “Damn you, Dad!” In another, he turned his back on my then-two-year-old sister while at the playground for just one second and looked back to see her at the top of the climbing dome (the same one he swore I was afraid to climb even though I was two years older). Slightly exaggerated? Perhaps. But absolutely true to him.

He’d read to us as kids, too, even after we’d reached the age when many parents gave up on the practice. He was just that good at telling a story. The series I remember the best were Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock books, about a man from an advanced society whose technology causes him to be mistaken as a magic user when his spaceship crash-lands on a medieval planet (thankfully he doesn’t try to colonize it). The real magic was the feeling my dad brought to the pages, making characters come to life for us. I’ve never read the books myself, but I know the story of Rod Gallowglass and his adventures on Gramarye, can picture him riding his robot horse, as though I’d seen it in real life.

Dad - Books

Reading. Speaking of reading, my dad had a heroic appetite for books. He read everything that came in at our local library, then read it again when he couldn’t find a new book. His true passion was science fiction and fantasy. Our walls were lined with shelves full of Ace and DAW paperbacks – some of which now live in my Chicago apartment because my dad wanted to clear out some space but couldn’t bear to get rid of them completely. My dad’s books are dog-eared, with corners folded over, bindings broken, tossed in a jumble, loved completely.

One of the last things my dad did before he died was visit the library. He was scheduled to have surgery on his right rotator cuff last Wednesday and had prepared for his recovery by checking out a whole stack of new books. It breaks my heart he never got to read them, but my dad wouldn’t want to be in a world where he’d read everything anyway.

Dad - Beach

Genuine Love. One last thing, and I’ll start it with an animal story. We had one dog growing up that my dad loved more than any other: Toby, a Labrador-Bouvier mix, a big friendly dog who went everywhere with us as kids. When my dad retired, he decided he wanted a new dog, so he and my mom drove over to Last Chance Rescue. At one point, my mom saw my dad looking at one of the dogs with tears in his eyes.

“She looks just like Toby,” he said.

They got the dog, his last dog. Her name’s Gabby. She’s entertaining as hell, and she went everywhere with him until the day he died.

My dad kept a lot to himself – my uncle recently described him as “stoic” – but when he cared about something it was plain as day. His love was as clear and unadorned as his facial expressions often were inscrutable. He may not always have known how to express love, but there was no mistaking it for anything but what it was. My dad would do anything for my mom, my sister, and me – and that included spending most of his life working on the line at General Motors so we had enough money for food, health care, and education. He told me at my wedding that seeing me have a happy life, doing a job I care about and marrying someone I love, made all the hard times he went through worth it.

That was my dad. He had a hard time loving himself. He fought with anxiety and depression his entire life. Sometimes he won, but just as often he lost. But he loved his dogs, his stories, his books, and his family.

I miss him so very much.

Love you Dad.