#61: Tales of the Red Shirts

September 17th, 2012

“I have nine schools I service,” the middle-aged nurse sitting in a folding chair in the shade of a tree told me. “That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?”

She gave me a wry smile, looking me over to say how naive I was. My mouth was hanging open. I didn’t realize that.

“We’re only supposed to service 750 students,” she said. “I’m servicing over 4,000 students.”

She fanned herself a bit.

“Then I have to leave schools to service diabetic students who may need shots in the viscinity of the schools I service,” she said, turning away from me to look on the crowd of thousands filling the park with cheers and red shirts.

A bilingual ed second-grade teacher at a South Side school later echoed the thought. Her school only has a nurse there a day or two a week.

“‘Oh you can’t have an emergency on such days,’” she said, pointing out the obvious, horrible flaw in the district’s logic. “‘If you’re going to have an emergency, have it on a day when the nurse is here.’”

On Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, thousands of Chicago Public School teachers filled historical protest ground Union Park as a show of force in their ongoing strike.

The park was an ocean of red. There were a few of the people who spend their lives hijacking protests in terms of what they somehow define as the greater good — a capoeira troupe for some reason, a drum circle, a communist bookstore with a table of arty-designed versions of things labeled “Manifesto.”

But mostly it was teachers there to ask for what they legally can’t ask for. Certain issues are non-strikable, unable to be brought to the table beyond a nudge and a wink and a backdoor deal.

For every teacher who told me they were striking for packed classes, there’s a Chicago Teachers Union document saying “The union is not on strike over matters governed exclusively by IELRA Section 4.5 and 12(b).”

A third-grade teacher from the West Side laughed at me when I asked about the heat in her classroom.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, holding a red sign in support of the union over her head to block the sun. “On a bad day, it’s literally like 90 degrees plus in my classroom. On a good day, I may have a breeze with 80. But that’s a good day and it’s still burning up in the classroom.”

She has 42 third-graders in her class. She’s supposed to have 32, tops.

“Not enough desks, not enough chairs, it’s, yeah, it’s interesting,” she said.

A friend of hers, a third-grade teacher on the far South Side, has a sane-sized class, but only because of an administrative decision considering third grade is a “benchmark” year. They issue standardized tests in third grade, so her school decided to be kinder on class size, if not conditions.

“My classroom probably gets up to 100 degrees. I’m in a building with no air and I’m on the third floor. It’s a really old building,” she said with a shrugged resignation that broke my heart.

I’ve reworked this collection of red shirt tales a dozen times, sometimes preaching, sometimes predicting, sometimes picking through minutiae of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act and 23 pages of tentative agreement released on the CTU blog.

I don’t have to tell you what I think about this or want from this. I’m trying to paint a picture of a day thousands rallied in a park, not play expert on secret conversations I’m not a part of.

But I will say this: Unless I lucked out and misunderstood it all, what I hope won’t happen is exactly what’s going to happen, ocean of red at Union Park aside.

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