Sunday, June 17, 2012

On the Shoulders of Giants

Growing up, my father was prone to detours.  We would be on our way to a family event or a Brewers game and he would inevitably turn off course to “show us something.”  We all knew what it was.  Eventually, we would pass by a factory, office building, department store, or other commercial structure and the reason for the trip would come out.  My dad would point out the building and proudly declare “I helped build that.”

For thirty-plus years my dad worked as an ironworker in the Milwaukee area.  His company provided the bones for lots of mid-level buildings in the metropolitan area.  My father played a vital role in many of these jobs as one of the top foremen for the company.  So it was with great pride that he would show us the end result of his daily labors.

And I was proud of it too.  Being able to casually drop “My dad?  He builds buildings,” in the what-does-your-dad-do conversation always had a certain caché.  How many other kids could say something as cool as that?

But this sense of pride came at a price.  Working year round out in the extremes of our see-saw Wisconsin climate, my dad endured year after year of cold, snowy winters and hot, humid summers.  I remember him telling me that he would get so cold sometimes that it seemed to reach his bones.  At night in the winter, he would fire-up the cast iron stove in our living room, creating so much heat that I would be sitting on the couch across the room sweating profusely.  He, on the other hand, would be lying right next to it in jeans and a thermal shirt, peacefully asleep.

Then there were the injuries.  From little ones, such as smashed toes and welding shavings in the eye; to big ones, such as a fall when I was only a few months old that put him in the hospital and left him with chronic back problems.  The inherent danger of his profession was always in the air.  It worried my step-mom a great deal and I know she bore the brunt of the concern for him, more than she ever let on.  Thinking back on it now, a sense of calm always seemed to come over me whenever his green work van pulled into the driveway.

For my dad, though, it was all worth it.  Born into rural poverty, his chosen trade allowed him to lift his family up and solidly place it in the middle class.  His story is the quintessential case study of the post-World War II rise of the blue-collar worker.  His own sweat and determination enabled him to achieve that more modest of American dreams: providing a starting point for his children that was better than his own.

It humbles me to think of all that he went through to provide this for us.  The injuries, the rotten weather, the stressful deadlines - it wasn’t easy.   But my dad has never been about doing what is easy.  He did what was right, and we are the ones that benefited most from it.  We were given a head start.

Of course, there is much more to my father than what he did for a living.  There is the generous man who has always given of himself freely.  Hours and hours of baseball games in the front yard, sock fights in the living room, basketball in the driveway.  He has passed on so more than just improved lifestyle.  He instilled in myself and my two siblings a fierce work ethic, a kind heart, and an unlimited devotion to family.

So it is on a day like this, my first official Father’s Day, that I hope he takes one more detour and looks at what he has built in us.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Vote for Teachers

Before dashing into my local polling place, I stopped to return a parent phone call.  The parent was taking me up on an offer to give his son and another student a ride to their 8th grade recognition.  I had called earlier out of concern that the students might not otherwise make the event.  The two students and I had been through a long grind of a year and I wanted to make sure they would be able to receive the acknowledgment and enjoy the celebration that comes with completing middle school. I happily agreed and stepped through the doors of the church to cast my vote.

Preparing for this, I had tried to find the right meaning and context. The outcome seemed inevitable for some time and I struggled to find what casting this vote would mean in the face of futility.  There's always the romantic notions of civic duty and the privilege of participating in democracy.  But those high-minded ideals did not seem enough in the face of such an important and, unfortunately, dire situation.

The past fifteen months had been tumultuous ones for all of Wisconsin. Broken friendships and fractured families became casualties of battle. Or at least it added more tension to the Thanksgiving dinner.
Being in the profession, the arguments back forth had the feel of those uncomfortable childhood moments when mom and dad are having a very tense discussion over what to do with you all while you are sitting in the room.  My chosen vocation was attacked viciously and, seemingly, without any remorse or consideration even by some people close to me.

Later that night, I sat in the gymnasium and listened to an 8th grade English teacher discuss the award-winning works of her students with such impressive prose that it was clear, as a colleague mentioned later, that she has not “taken her talents” (to co-opt a meme of our time) to greater acclaim and fortune.  But at the same time, her beautiful speech, unguarded in its admiration for its subjects and perfectly clear in the joy she takes in teaching them, left no mystery as to why that was not the case.

Variations of this scene are taking place in gyms and auditoriums throughout Wisconsin and the U.S.  Teachers giving of themselves not because it's written in their contract or demanded by principals or school boards or even expected. They give of themselves because it’s who they are - they’re teachers.  For them it isn’t just a label on their tax filing.  It’s an intrinsic part of their being.  They are built with an unceasing desire to meet the needs of students, whatever those needs may be.  I am one of those teachers.  It’s the first thing that comes to mind when asked to describe myself, because it sums me up so well.  It’s a part of who I am as much as gender or eye color.

And that is why what has been happening in my state hurt as much as it did.  Having neighbors, friends, and, unfortunately, even family members disparage a profession so intertwined with my identity and the identity of those around me, including my wife, created a cut deeper than just a simple debate over public policy.  It felt like an attack on who we are as people.

That is not to say that I feel like we are guiltless.  During the new teacher orientation period at a previous district, I experienced a quick indoctrination into the world of teacher’s unions in Wisconsin.  Over lunch on the third or fourth day of training, several members of the local union met with us to discuss membership.   I use the term “discuss” loosely as the presentation essentially consisted of the president, a gruff, well-tanned veteran teacher a year away from retirement, informing us that our ticket out the door was a signed membership form.  Our only choice was whether we would like voting rights with that.  Seeing as I had not voted in union elections to that point and knew that I would most likely be keeping that streak alive, it was not the most engaging of decisions.

While the lack of a positive, well-laid out presentation is it’s own issue, what stuck me most from that experience was something he said while laying out the benefits the union provides.  While listing all the things the union had fought for, he mentioned putting 10% of our salary toward our pensions.  Having spent some time in the private sector, I was blown away by this number.  The average 401K plan only allows for 4% or 5% at most and increasingly does not contain an employer match1.  At the time, I only had one computer in my classroom and I was having to scrounge for other basic supplies, like staplers and white board erasers.  My first reaction was "an chance I could use some of those funds for my room." My second reaction: no wonder the teacher's unions have a PR problem.

That being said, it is confusing to me the anger that this receives.  When we talk to young people or think about what we want for our own kids, we do so without limitations.  We rightly encourage them to strive for the best in all areas, especially monetary success. We would never fault someone for joining a private company that provides excellent health insurance and a great retirement plan.  But when it comes to teaching, these measures of professional success are unacceptable.  To those looking to choose their future path we are essentially saying “Go out and get what’s best for you, except if you want to teach.”

I know the anger toward teacher benefits is not born out of some unfounded bias towards educators.  The direct connection of funding for schools to yearly property tax bills drives this sentiment and with good reason.  Hearing of things like health benefits and pension plans that are better than the private sector while staring at another increase on a property tax statement does not make for warm feelings.  It’s easy to understand.  I will never fault anyone for wanting more bang for their buck when it comes to tax dollars.  

But nothing is free.  One of the pillars of our democracy is having an informed, educated public.  Lost in all of this is the admirable goal set out but the public education system in America - that everyone in our country, no matter their background, status, or wealth, will receive an education.  Everyday we set about doing that. No matter what they come to us with, we strive to meet the academic and social needs of every single young person that walks through our doors.  We don’t do it out of command or desire for a bonus.  We do it because it’s who we are.

So as I stepped inside the doors of the church and set about casting my vote, I focused on not what the outcome might be but the fact that my vote was my way of softly and respectfully standing up for the profession I love.

1 Numbers come from vague recollection during time in the private sector.  Some kind of official verification to come.