I try not to talk about politics on my blog because that’s not why people come here, but politics are actually a big part of who I am, and in this essay I share with you a personal story about my late husband (who had earrings and wore a trenchcoat when I met him) how he got me involved in the fight for public education, and why I will be supporting the Los Angeles teachers tomorrow.
[I’m going to tie all of this into what I usually write about on here (mortality, getting through a life that doesn’t go as expected, the pile of sludge we have to wade through for as long as we have breath inside of us– you know, all of that depressing stuff I normally ruminate over). Please stick with me for a bit so I can bring you more of the same.]
On Monday, January 14, 2019, UTLA is going on strike after two years of drawn-out and fruitless bargaining with the school district. They want a contract that is fair to both teachers and students.
If you are a union person, hopefully you understand the importance of solidarity with UTLA and their efforts. I’ve heard a few teachers express disinterest (“why should I wear red and attend the walk-in, it doesn’t affect us!”). I’ve also seen special interests like the charter school lobby who want to pretend like they haven’t been spending millions on elections to infiltrate the district in an attempt to decimate public education. There are also comments from people who do not understand the democratic importance of unions and assume this is just about greedy teachers.
But mostly I see an outpouring of support from parents, students, and colleagues across the ation. People are sick of having to grovel to make a living wage that compensates them for their skills and education and experience. People are sick of sending their children to classrooms that have too many kids with too many issues and needs and not enough resources. We all know about these needs. We see the growing poverty in our communities. Mental health issues have skyrocketed. Gun violence is rampant and tensions are high. So why are we having to fight tooth and nail for psychologists and nurses and librarians in our schools?
It’s like we all forget that these children will literally be the adults in the near future.
I am reminded of one of the first distinct memories I have of my late husband. It wasn’t a strike, but it was at a demonstration on the street.
Our department chair told me and the other new guy to be out on the sidewalk in front of the school after the last bell. Both of us newbies had no idea why, but we weren’t going to question it. No making waves. I was grateful for the big girl job with a contract and benefits and was not about to piss off my department chair. I showed up on time to the thing I did not know anything about.
Even though my future husband taught in the classroom next door to mine, he had mostly ignored me since I got hired. We did not know each other and I’m not even sure I knew his name. I remember seeing him on that day with his faux hawk and pierced ears, wearing his black Rick Steve’s backpack, waving a sign and yelling like an enthusiastic activist. It was more of a fleeting notice on my end, as I was too overwhelmed with the newness of the experience and completely clueless about unions and why I was standing out there with my new colleagues who were still strangers to me.
That would all change.
Slowly, I got pulled into this world when I began dating this man with a faux hawk who wore trench coats and Doc Martens and was a bulldog about politics–the man I would eventually marry (and force to remove his earrings).
At first I participated as his sidekick. Precinct walking, but letting him do the talking. Attending rallies and protests, but pushing the baby stroller. Holding down the fort at home while he went to trainings and participated on committees. At some point I realized I did not want to just stay home, and we began trading child coverage duties while the other person could participate in politics. Kenneth opened my eyes to the importance of trying to make a difference, and our family grew around this common theme of getting involved, our children becoming precinct walkers and protesters in the womb.
Kenneth unexpectedly died on a Wednesday morning during springtime, in the middle of a busy week when he had been making daily phone calls for Bernie Sanders and right at the hour when we should have been making breakfast and lunches for our kids before school. Instead I was calling 9-1-1 and then the mortuary. He never knew that our current president had a chance of winning. Sometimes I think it was better that way.
Another election season approached about six months after he passed away, and I found it important to continue my involvement no matter how stressful and logistically difficult it was as a new single mother with a 1-year-old, 3-year-old, and a 6-year-old. I strapped the baby onto my back and we went door-to-door. I found childcare while I attended PAC meetings, and we kept going. Somehow. Part of that motivation came from a compelling desire to keep Kenneth alive by honoring his memory of grit and determination. Part of it was to distract myself and keep busy as a way to manage my overwhelming grief. The other part was because trying to make a difference and working in a group for a shared cause really did make me feel joy during a time when I never thought I could be happy again.
When we work together, support each other, and fight for a common good, it may seem like we are devoting our efforts to helping others– and we are– but make no mistake about the amount of self-care that occurs in the process. Helping others inevitably helps ourselves.
I don’t know if Buddha really said this, but apparently he’s quoted as saying, “If you light a lamp for someone else it will also brighten your path.” Whoever said it, they were right.
Why should we care about this strike in Los Angeles?
Solidarity with the L.A. teachers, yes.
But it is also a statement against the privatization of our public schools by the charter school movement, which spent almost 10 million dollars in a recent LAUSD school board election to hijack the district with an intent to drive it into the ground and open more charter schools.
It is a statement against their investment banker superintendent Austin Beutner, who has a record of being in cahoots with Eli Broad, a “philanthropist” who spends ungodly amounts of money with a goal to convert half the schools in L.A. to charters by 2023. We, the public, will not stand for this privatization. Your false charity will not fool us.
Our public schools are the cornerstone of democracy. It is imperative that we fight to preserve them. They belong to our communities. We went to these schools. They don’t belong to any party or elected official or doofus old man like Eli Broad who has so much money he thinks he can be our savior and knows what is good for us. Our schools are not for sale, and we can not allow them to be auctioned the highest bidder. Our schools belong to our neighborhoods.
Are they all perfect? Certainly not.
But you have a voice in your public school. There are elected school boards. If you are unhappy, you can speak at school board meetings. You can get an ineffective trustee out of office with the power of the ballot. You have access to numbers and information because of laws about transparency– all things you can not do with charter schools.
Public schools are the most effective way to educate all children across the nation and give them the foundation they need to be able to participate in democracy. Public schools are held accountable by strict regulations and have qualified, credentialed teachers in the classroom that overseen by elected school boards. Future voters need to be able to read and write and do math. They need critical thinking skills. They need to be able to communicate their needs and ideas, and they must understand the ways by which they can enact change through democratic practices. Where else will they learn all of this?
Sure, there may be a small percentage of kids who might need alternative ways to get educated. But for the masses, our public schools are the way to go. Because of human greed and corruption, this is the best system for educating our children. We need the oversight and transparency and the ability to do something about a problem. We need to have a voice in our public schools.
A democracy cannot exist without the participation of the people. Otherwise it’s something else, and we’re just calling it a “democracy” to make everyone feel better. Public schools can not exist without the participation of the people. We are seeing right now that after many years of taking for granted that your neighborhood school would be there forever, that is just no longer the case. We can’t be passive about this anymore.
There are predatory interests lurking around our schools and looking for a way in.
Predator #1: people have figured out that you can try to make money off the kids in schools, and this is where charter schools and voucher programs come in. Yeah, yeah, maybe you can name a charter school that was amazing and honest, but the facts are indisputable at this point about the rest of these schools. The vast majority of charter schools simply do not do better than our public schools, not to mention the widespread corruption we have seen. The original vision of charter schools never materialized. It’s now the wild west with a lot of money to be made and an agenda.
Predator #2: ruling elites. They have nothing to gain by the masses being educated. These are the elites who fund attacks on public schools. They don’t want the masses having critical thinking skills and learning the democratic tactics for getting involved in policy-making. If the masses knew how to advocate for their communities, they might catch on about corporate tax loopholes and all the other ways that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. You know what? The “elites” in society do not even send their children to public schools. We haven’t had a president since Jimmy Carter who had the guts to send their children to a public school. Both elite Democrats and elite Republicans alike can afford to send their children to amazing private schools, so they don’t give a crap about your public schools OR your charter schools. It’s just that sometimes the charter schools can be a little pet project to make them feel like they are throwing crumbs at the masses (despite their lack of experience in education), and/or it becomes a way to make more money and pad their gluttonous portfolio of excess.
I write a lot about death and how I’ve processed my feelings and challenges in the aftermath of losing my husband as a 34-year mother of young children. When you lose your partner so early in the family journey, and when you watch your well-planned life fall into a thousand broken pieces of the dreams from yesterday, so much about who you are is forever altered.
As a widow, I became consumed with thoughts about who I would become, riddled with anxiety about the unknown, confused about the purpose of our existence, and not knowing what to do with this life I did not choose. I had done everything I was supposed to do in order to achieve my happily-ever-after, and it wasn’t good enough. I internalized that it meant I wasn’t good enough. I did not deserve the things that everyone else around me got. It felt like a banishment to a hellacious existence of tedious misery.
One lesson I learned through this experience is that in the midst of my pain, I could not retreat. The people around me– neighbors, family, friends, colleagues, even the checker at the grocery store and the secretary at my kid’s school–everyone was a part of my community. Throughout my day, even though grief made me feel isolated and alone, I was never actually alone. I was a part of something bigger than me. I also came to understand that my reason to keep living and moving forward was because of my place in this community. I still had more to do and feel and see and experience. I had more contributions to make. I had an interconnectedness with others that I couldn’t give up on.
We have this one precious, absurd, strange, wonderful chance to be alive. For a reason I attribute to the cosmic roll of the dice, we landed here, at this time, in this moment, and this is what we have to work with. It is our greatest gift and responsibility to do something meaningful with this random stroke of luck that we have to be alive and have consciousness and the ability to be self-reflective.
I want to live as well as I can with whatever years I have left. I watched my husband die, and with the exhale of his last breath I saw all of his hopes and dreams and unfinished goals dissipate into a universe he was no longer physically a part of. But one of my greatest joys during that time was being able to witness over 500 people at his funeral, and all of the ways that people paid tribute to him in the weeks and months and years after his passing because he was the kind of man who cared about others and made a difference in other people’s lives. I believe that our existence continues through the hearts and minds of those who we have influenced in some way. It gives me comfort to know that Kenneth is all over the world in some form, even when his physical form is no longer with us.
I think the purpose of our existence is to live as well as we can day-to-day, and to give back to the world in some way. Maybe that’s being a teacher or a doctor or a firefighter. It could be as a PTA volunteer, or helping out in your child’s classroom. Maybe it’s raising children to become contributing members of society, or the way that you cared for an elderly neighbor. It might be leading a group of Girl Scouts. Perhaps you were a mentor to a younger person. Maybe you recommended a book, or those times you made somebody feel better. There are so many ways, big and small, to make this brutal world a better place. For you. For me. For our neighbors. For our children and grandchildren. For the children in another country. As the legacies of the people who went through so much in their own lives, and directly and indirectly contributed to our world today.
I support the teachers in Los Angeles. I support the students. As a proud product of public schools and as a parent of children in public schools, I support our public schools. Public schools are vital for democracy, and I want so badly to continue believing in the ideal of a government by the people and for the people. That only happens when the people stand for something. In a life that is short and fleeting, being a bystander is your right. Except it’s our interconnectedness that helps us accept how our human suffering is simply the price we pay for being alive, and this is when we understand that it’s all worth it because of the purpose and joy we derive from being a part of something bigger than our own existence.