Breaking Out of the Box

If you're a Democrat you must be an out of touch left wing liberal. If you're a Republican, you must be a right wing nut job. Independents are just disengaged or disgusted with the whole thing. The truth of the matter is, most of us are somewhere else on that spectrum. I am probably just left of the middle, and tired of everyone else defining who I am and what I stand for. I have a feeling there are others out there like me, people that just don't fit in someone else's box. We care about our community, our state and our nation. We are red (and blue) blooded Americans. We don't always agree, but that's what a representative government is all about. I say it's time for some Forward Thinking.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Painting a Picture

Full disclosure.  I am a Democrat, a former teacher and long time union member.  I want to tell you how those things have shaped my values and my life.  I don't want to leave the interpretation to chance. That is just too risky these days.

I was born in Iowa and lived in four states before I finished the fifth grade.  The last move found me growing up in a middle class household in Aurora, Illinois about 35 miles from Chicago.  I think Saturday Night Live was secretly filmed in my basement. I have two brothers and one sister and our politics vary.  I think that's because our parents taught us to explore different points of view, to think and draw our own conclusions.  That kind of critical thinking was also encouraged in school by nearly every teacher I ever had.  It would have been unheard of to censor the speech of a sitting president or micro-manage what we learned and how we learned it from the district office or the legislature. Teachers made those decisions. We studied and discussed current events and historical context.  We said the Pledge every morning and sang the first verse of America the Beautiful or the Star Spangled Banner every day. I knew the three branches of government, their functions and constitutional authority by the time I completed fourth grade. We were encouraged to examine facts and opinions and to learn, from our teachers, other adults, and each other.  To this day I think that is what inspired me to be a teacher; the challenge and joy of learning.  

School was pretty predictable. In elementary school we took art, music and PE, even if we didn't really like it. Everyone took science, math, social studies and reading. When we got into junior-high and high school we took home economics and shop classes.  We chose electives and I took typing, Spanish and etymology.  I loved the words and hated the typing. We took tests, but not the kind we have today.  We got to school at around 8:00 and got out around 3:15. Lots of us dreamed of going to college and some of us had the chance.  

Both of my parents worked and I cooked dinner most nights after school.  My dad was a WWII Marine veteran who got his GED and took some courses but never graduated from college.  He was a brilliant mathematician and engineer and worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, first as an instructor and later in radar technology and the early days of computer programming.  My mom was a court stenographer and a marvelous seamstress.  We read the newspaper every day and talked about it at dinner. It was the 60's and 70's after all.  The good old days- no controversy then, right?  Just the assassinations of an American president, his brother a US Senator, and a black Civil Rights leader; the Vietnam War, Watergate, desegregation, Roe v. Wade, little things.  

When I was in the 8th grade my older brother entered active duty in the US Air Force- it was 1971, the height of the Vietnam War. During my senior year we had a race riot at our high school and suddenly it wasn't so much fun anymore.  Security guards, ID's, lunchroom restrictions. Sound familiar?  But you know, we talked about it at all at home. My mom told me to be careful, my dad told me not to jump to conclusions about people.  Our teachers  reminded us of the consequences of poor decisions, and we learned to deal with life.  Just shy of 18 years old I understood what racial tension and bigotry could do to a community, how important public employees were to our general welfare, the stress and sacrifice of having family members in the military.  

It wasn't always rosy. Ozzie and Harriett were fading fast.  Politics and public life were volatile.  My older sister and brother were married and grown and I fought with my parents like every teenager in America.  But in my house we were taught to respect all kinds of differences, argue vociferously for our point of view and give back to those who were less fortunate than we were.  When my dad finally retired after more than 30 years of public service, he had a decent pension, and he earned every penny of it.  When he passed away, it was that pension and those medical benefits that made it possible for my mom to pay her bills and get the medical help she needed. 

I went to college, got married and began my teaching career in 1978.  My husband Paul and I raised two boys with many of the same values.  Paul was a staunch Republican until the late 90's when he decided his party had abandoned what he thought was important.  He became an Independent.  I joined the teacher's union in 1979, the beginning of my second year in the profession.  I was a member and an elected leader in the National Education Association for over 25 years.  All of the over 3 million members of the NEA are regular teachers and school employees just like me.  No hired goons- just people who go to work every day and teach kids or support the people who do.  I joined because I thought it was important to support my profession, and work to improve our schools for new generations of teachers and students who would come after me.  I still believe that today.  I worked hard as a teacher and a leader- to live the values of my life and my profession; respect for others, honest disagreement, fairness, a commitment to life long learning and the success of my students.  My union kept me from arbitrary punishment for speaking up at a governing board meeting early in my career- though it didn't stop the district administration from trying to intimidate a second year teacher and keep her from expressing her views about district budget cuts in public.  My teaching career spanned 20 years in two states and three districts- in all that time my pay never reached $40,000.  I left the classroom in 1998 with a Master's Degree.  If I went back today, I wouldn't earn much more. And yes, I paid into the public pension system, an equal match to my employer with the hope of getting a portion of it back, just like millions of other public employees across our country.  When my husband died five years ago, that future income became even more important.  

A life story in one blog post is a challenge- but it is a beginning.  I wanted to paint my picture, the truth of my life, in my own words.  Because too much of the rhetoric about greedy public sector union members who don't work hard and feel entitled to a "taxpayer" pension want you to ignore the work and lives behind their commentary.  They make assumptions about peoples' work, contributions, motivations and values.  They forget to tell you that these unions are made up of your police, firefighters, teachers, sanitation workers, postal workers, corrections officers, and public health care workers,  most who spent their careers in public service and helped pay into their pension systems. They don't tell you many public employees had minimal  or no raises in more than half of the last 10 years, even when times were good.  There's no "union" without the people who belong to it.  Are there abuses in pension systems? Sure.  Let's work together to fix those.  Do we need more quality control, better evaluations and more productivity in the public sector?  Absolutely-we need it in the private sector as well- there is always room for improvement.  Should we all fairly share the  burden of budget deficits and at the same time build an infrastructure for the future?  Definitely.  But demeaning public workers and making their unions a scapegoat for budget woes is no way to come together and solve problems. Let's try that- an honest conversation, without the accusations and assumptions.  You'd be amazed what cooperation, good faith negotiations and problem solving can do.  Civilizations, governments and productive businesses have been built on those efforts.  We need Forward Thinking, not backwards movement.