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Next Paycheck: Our St. Crispin’s Day

by gera

Henry V is my favorite film adaptation of Shakespeare. I know it isn’t considered a classic, and people don’t like Kenneth Branagh’s acting, so I hope I don’t lose anyone here. My favorite scene is his speech to motivate his troops in what is looking like an impossible situation. He reminds his men that engaging in the fight is not just for the fight itself, but for a greater principal–the principal of historical memory and a right to tell your story, on your terms, of victory over the odds. He tells his men that

…we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

In February, after months of failed negotiation punctuated by periodic outbursts in the media, I, along with thousands of my brothers and sisters, voted to strike, a last resort in the fight for fair compensation. I will not review the issues at play, address the misinformation, or engage in any after-the-fact criticism of anyone involved. Everything I have to say here is what I said at the time.

It is August 5, meaning that in less than 48 hours, we will receive our first paycheck under the new compensation agreement. For many of us, myself included, veteran teachers who were here when starting salary was $25,554, we are looking at a substantial pay increase, and while I am, more than anything, relieved that I can finally make ends meet without too much stress and anxiety, I can say unironically that the money is only a part of it.

As I receive this check from the direct deposit gods, I will take a moment and reflect on how I got here. I’ll remember what it took to get here. I will remember the first day on the picket line in front of my school on a busy street. It was hella cold. We layered up. I will remember being humbled by the presence of Dr. Thandabantu Iverson, intellectual and retired math teacher, pounding my deerskin drum as we marched. I will remember parents of our students meeting us with emotion and pride, bringing us breakfast burritos, coffee, snacks to sustain us on the lines. I will remember around 9 AM when our students came pouring out of the building, in solidarity and furious about the instruction (or lack of) happening in the building, chanting, marching with us. Parents joined us on the lines. We marched to the capitol. Kevin and I had the incredible privilege of emceeing the rallies at the admin building, at Civic center, on the steps of the capitol. And as the hours went on, we felt connected to a movement larger than ourselves. A movement that would benefit teachers who came after us. We met Kathleen Braun, who went on strike every time Denver teachers went on strike, marching in the cold, this 50-year veteran, stone-faced, fierce, with no doubts whatsoever. I remember marching with first-year teachers who never wavered, and risked everything for a larger movement. I will remember taking our whole crew on foot to my wife’s school, and cranking up the protest with the force of two schools.

I also remember the folx who did not march. There were teachers all over the district who received ominous emails suggesting that their immigration status could be impacted if they choose to walk off the job. The district hard responded and came down hard, but the damage was done. Many of those individuals remained in their classrooms, fearful that their entire lives in this city could be upended. I hold no negative feelings toward them (though one of my colleagues on a visa marched anyway, daring anyone to fire her), in fact, I feel strongly that I was marching for them as well.

But then there were others who, for no reason at all, crossed the picket lines. I will not publicly surmise their motivations. I will state unequivocally that my own professional relationship with them is changed, probably permanently. As I exhale a sigh of relief when I see my electronic pay stub, I will also think of those who will get the same pay increase I will, some even more, who gave nothing, contributed nothing, risked nothing. I will resent those individuals probably for the rest of the time I know them, until they fade from my aging memory (I can hold a grudge like no other).

I will also be guided by the spirit of Henry V. Because for everyone else, there is a new bond there. A man I have coached soccer against for a decade in the middle school league–usually adversaries when we meet, allies in the struggle those days and weeks leading up to and during the strike. Getting to know people, and forming bonds. When I see you all in the hallways of my building, at district functions, on social media, I will smile, remembering what you did those days, from our building captain and another year one teacher who stayed up all hours attending bargaining. In our building we didn’t always agree on moves and tactics, but at the end of the day, most of us were out there, united, together, fighting not for ourselves, but for each other.

In closing, I will say this: s/he who walked that line with me shall forever be my sister and brother. On the anniversary of the strike victory, I will think fondly of all of you. We lost our voices together, got sick in real time, saw our feet bleeding from the cold and the marching, endured abusive taunts from drivers, soaked up the overwhelming support from most everyone, enjoyed free food and drink at local businesses in support, and felt the exhilaration of victory on that Valentine’s Day. And when we have future disagreements, which are inevitable in passionate places like schools, I will always remind myself that we did this together, and that you are alright. You are willing to sacrifice for this cause, bigger than yourself.

Those who crossed will be on the outside looking in. You will be asked if you went on strike in 2019, and you will work hard to rationalize your decision for yourself and others. You will not have the experience of fighting for, and winning something. Rather, you will have the experience of an uninvited guest, feeling like you aren’t really a part of things. I’m actually very sad for y’all.

The struggle continues…

Teaching in an Era of Bad Feelings

by gera

I really struggled yesterday. With the news of two clearly racially-motivated mass shootings, I found myself in a deep rage. Not sadness. I’m past sadness. My anger often looks like sadness, but make no mistake, I was consumed by anger for the entire morning with no clear sense of how to dig out of it. To dig out and “focus on the positive” feels privileged, entitled, naive, since others cannot do the same. How do you dig out of losing a loved one? Your baby, your pride and joy? How do you dig out of a gunshot wound that you sustained, just trying to run an errand? Or just trying to have fun with friends? How do you dig out of an early grave?

So I found myself stuck. Twitter followers were posting powerful words all day, and I was left with nothing to add or say. At one point I stumbled into Republican Twitter, and that just made things worse.

I am a teacher. It is how I navigate the world. It is how I view the world. It is my purpose, it is my identity. In a couple of weeks, a lot of young people in my school will want to know how I view the violence and hatred that has defined this summer. I need to be ready. I need an approach. These are just a few thoughts.

It is imperative that we teach what racism is, in light of the violence that defines this administration. Racism isn’t limited to what an individual thinks or says. It is also the context within which words and actions take place. For example, #fakepresident made a statement about the ‘rat-infested’ city of Baltimore. In the initial comments, he never mentioned ethnic groups by name. But given the history of persecution of the people living in the poor and working class areas of Baltimore, his statement fed notions that areas with PoC are toxic, garbage and therefore the people are toxic, garbage. Same with the calls for mental health support in light of this weekend’s mass shootings. To call for mental health support without addressing the epidemic of white supremacist violence feeds white privilege, therefore repeating the pattern that white lives are more valuable and worthy of saving than black lives. Therefore, the shootings are part of a racially oppressive system. And to ignore the fact that that the shootings happened in two cities with significant populations of color, feeds the same system. Any discussion of these racially-motivated mass shootings that does not include a discussion of the role played by racist systems and structures is an incomplete discussion.

There is evidence, at least early on, that both shooters carried with them racial hatred and intent to commit these crimes. Perhaps mental illness was an issue for both men, but we need to examine the terrifying nexus of racist ideology, white supremacy, access to high-powered weapons that were meant for the destruction of the human body, and mental illness. We need an intersectional study of white supremacist hatred as well. The invisibility of a mainstream discussion of white supremacy as it relates to numerous mass shootings is racist, because it sends the message that whiteness is without character, tendency, bias, or opinion. Whiteness is therefore normal, so to call out white supremacy represents a challenge to what too many people view as ‘normal.’

This fall, you must teach students and colleagues (if necessary) to examine racism as a system, maintained by structures, daily life, tradition, and ritual. To call a person racist is actually kind of pointless. Because, as Eve Ewing cited in Ghosts in the Schoolyard, it portrays racism as an act of individual expression of individual beliefs. And because most people do not identify as racist–and in fact are honestly convinced that they are not–any discussion that does not examine how our behaviors reinforce white supremacy is a dead end. As a cis-hetero male in a marriage that is considered ‘normal’ in mainstream discourse, I must have the same internal and external dialogue with myself regarding sexism and homophobia. I do not believe that I am sexist or homophobic, but it would be naive of me to think that my actions never strengthen those systems. So, how might I disrupt that system? How might I be honest about ways in which I contribute to the maintenance of sexist, homophobic, and transphobic systems and structures.

And as one of our Twitter followers posted, this is NOT a teachable moment. We are past teachable moments under this administration. This is an organizing moment. This is a resistance moment. This, as the eminent Jose Vilson reminds us on the daily, is our moment.