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TEACHERS’ FRET : Sometimes a Statement Has to Be Made, Even in a No-Win Situation

Simon is a well-dressed Englishman, gray-mustachioed, a doctorate in something or other, who teaches Spanish at a high school on the western edge of South-Central Los Angeles. Simon is famous for making his second-year students actually read in Spanish, do encyclopedia work and such, which are rigors most of them tend not to like. He sees teaching as something of a calling. Even so, this winter, his thoughts were on The Strike.

In the hall a couple of months ago, Katya, a math teacher, challenged Simon about his support for the strike because she, Katya, would really prefer to keep working. She came up with the usual theories about the strike: that there may have been a secret deal between the teachers’ union and the school board, that there was no money to squeeze from a thoroughly broke state government, that by going on strike--and forgoing several weeks of income in the process--the teachers were actually letting the school board off the hook. (Katya was educated in an Eastern European country where such secret deals were commonplace.)

Like it or not, a strike would help the school district balance its books, she continued. And if, as some people have been suggesting, there is a strike and there is another uprising while the schools are closed, everybody will blame the teachers. Did he really want to be a party to this collusion?

When Simon started at the high school just a few years ago, there were about 10 fewer students in each class, and more class materials, and students didn’t assume he was a racist just because his skin happened to be white. There once were a manageable number of troublemakers, far fewer than the critical mass that now seems to predominate in some classrooms. (When there is too much hostility in a classroom, nobody can really do much of anything.) California had once been among the nation’s leaders in money spent per pupil; now its per-pupil expenditures are on a course toward Guam’s.

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The federal commitment to education once involved more than just squabbling about whether prayer should be allowed in schools and whether the government should help pay for the rich to send their sons to Exeter. Simon remembered the way some of his students boasted about the camcorders and athletic shoes they’d managed to loot during last spring’s troubles, and he shuddered.

He thought about the dwindling supply of textbooks, requiring four students to share a book; of the wastebaskets that went weeks without being emptied, and of the classrooms without heat because nobody could afford to fix the radiators. He contemplated the economics-based decision to close all but two or three student bathrooms at the high school, and the resultant scary groups of kids, armed with lavatory passes, who roamed the halls during school hours.

He wondered about the humanity of an administration that, on the same week it announced the cut in teachers’ salaries, also raised the price of coffee in the teachers’ cafeteria a dime.

“Possibly there was collusion between the union and the district,” Simon said, “and possibly there is nothing to be gained. The board has no use for teachers, the politicians have no use for teachers and the students obviously have no use for teachers; I know this. We’re obviously not in this job for the money. But they did not consult us before they cut our pay and our health benefits, and the profession has been greatly demeaned. We have no voice. We are thoroughly demoralized. . . . Even if the message a strike would send is unfocused and inarticulate and harmful, it is better than no message at all.”

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There was a faculty meeting later that week, and 100% of the high school’s teachers voted for a strike scheduled to begin last Tuesday. Katya, unwilling to compromise her colleagues’ unanimity, abstained.

“In Vancouver, British Columbia,” Simon said, “the city’s librarians were at one point represented by the sanitation workers’ union. Therefore, if the city cut the library budget, the garbage men went on strike. Librarians were very well-respected in Vancouver.”


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