The week of October 15th was one of the most emotionally and physically difficult weeks of my life. On Monday, I hugged my students a little tighter before they left knowing that my union would most likely be on strike the following day. With negotiations leading nowhere and the school board’s constant misrepresentation of the facts, the outlook for the next morning was grim. Sure enough, at 5am my cell phone rang and the prerecorded voice of our superintendent told me that school would not be in session because the teacher’s union had moved to strike. My heart sank. In a few hours my students would be waking up in their own beds and they would be told that there was no school. Too young to understand, it would provide the thrill akin to that of an anxiously awaited snow day, but surely they would be told something about the teacher strike. What were their parents telling them? Which side were they on? What would they think of me or say to me when we finally returned?
Three hours later I reported to the sidewalk outside of my school, a building that has been my home away from home for the last seven years. With my jacket zipped and a hat pulled over my ears against the cold, I hoisted my sign and we began our walk, knowing that for once I had to set aside the selflessness that comes with teaching and stand up for the integrity of my profession and of the district from which I had always planned to retire. There were honks of support but it was difficult to ignore the dirty looks, the head shakes, and rude gestures. News came during the day that despite the school board’s public stance on doing everything possible to reach an agreement, they had suspended our insurance. On and on we walked. Every major news channel had reporters on site, newspaper reporters, photographers… suddenly, us teachers, used to our relatively solitary professional lives, were in the spotlight. Co-workers and dear friends were being interviewed for the 5:00 news, all the while hoping that no one accidentally said something that could be misconstrued by the media. It was surreal. 9 1/2 hours and 15-17 miles later I climbed my aching body into my car and finally allowed myself to cry. Almost too exhausted to even do that I drove home with nothing but the feeling of dread that we were most likely going to be right back out there tomorrow. How was I even going to get out of bed?
The emotional and physical toll was far greater than I had ever anticipated and in the midst of this career turmoil, Mr. Something and I had an orientation at an adoption agency on our calendar for the very next day. My head could not have been further from our Tiny Human Project that week but I was committed to taking our idea beyond our diningroom table conversations and into the real world. I went to bed that Tuesday night not knowing if I would be waking up to walk the picket line again or to get back on track with my students. Such uncertainty lead to fitful sleep despite my exhaustion. At 5am I awoke in the darkness to the buzzing of my cell phone. Once again the prerecorded voice of my superintendent, but today he reported that the board and the teachers had reached a tentative agreement after 17 hours of negotiating, school would be in session.
I rolled over as my eyes adjusted to the early morning gloom and stared at the ceiling in utter shock. Knowing how little faith the board had in the idea of a quick settlement I was certain we would be striking again. As my mind slowly shifted gears and I began to plan an entirely different sort of outfit for my day, I remembered a district meeting that all second grade teachers were expected to attend that very day. Surely they would allow us to be with our students instead. There was no reason it couldn’t be rescheduled. I tried to check my school email on my phone but we were still locked out of it. I wanted to begin substitute plans just in case but my laptop had been collected and was locked in my principal’s office. Once again I found myself having no idea what my day was going to hold. When I arrived at school I learned that the meeting was still on but we were starting a little later than originally planned. Grateful that my students would get to see me before I left, I began frantically writing sub plans, a process, when I do it as well as I like, can take about two hours. I had 40 minutes.
When my student’s saw the substitute they asked if I was still on strike. When I told them, no, that I had a meeting to go to they asked if it was about the strike. “I saw you walking on the street yesterday!” Second graders are too young to understand, I needed to be there with them but I was heading to the district office. A building that had been ground zero just twenty-four hours ago. Yesterday they had told me to turn in my laptop, they deactivated my keycard, and they suspended my insurance. Today they were serving me bagels and sweets and telling me how happy they were to see me. The drastic flip of circumstances left my head spinning. My coworkers were beaming, jubilant to be back, but bitterness clung to me. I like to think that I may have slipped back into it a bit more easily if I could have been with my students but I was left feeling like a traitor sitting in the district office all day.
Despite the emotional turbulence of the day, Mr. Something and I had a meeting downtown at 6:00. He had taken the day off, originally planning to walk the picket line with me so we could head into the city together that evening. But since I was sitting in a meeting all day, he stayed home and took the train into the city where I would meet him. It was pouring by the time I left work, and being a creature of the suburbs, I have never been comfortable driving in the city. The rain didn’t help. I didn’t know where I was going. I missed streets and struggled to parallel park my Subaru Forrester (after driving a Mini Cooper for 6 years, it’s a bit different when it comes to parking now!) It took me twice as long to get into the city than I had expected and by the time I arrived I was practically in tears from frustration.
Mr. Something was waiting for me in a pub that he found called The Beetle. He had dinner waiting and had stashed a bag of chocolate chip cookies in his bag for me, knowing that despite the end of our strike, it was going to be a tough day for me. The pub was nothing spectacular. Vinyl covered chairs, and a battered floor covered in black paint, but as I sat there decompressing with Mr. Something over chicken quesadillas and a hummus platter I spotted an uncharacteristically ornate chandelier in the ceiling. A tribute to a past life of the building we were sitting in. Something about the contrast of the present establishment that we were sitting in and the beauty of this giant chandelier centered me. I snapped the photo knowing that through the drama of the week that single shining detail of this evening would stay with me. After our quick dinner we were on our way to the agency. The rain had stopped, I was on Mr. Something’s arm, and we were moving forward… together.
For now, it’s past my bedtime. Nineteen second graders are rather unforgiving if I come to work a bit groggy from not getting enough sleep the night before. 🙂 To be continued…