the political looms personal: Portland teachers strike vote

Schnitzer Concert Hall marquee, February 5, 2014

Portland Public School (PPS) teachers voted Wednesday night at the Schnitzer Concert Hall to strike, with a planned walkout on Thursday, February 20th, during a week in which students will already be missing school for a day or more (President's Day on Monday, the 17th, and a scheduled late-opening or teacher development day on Wednesday, the 19th, depending on the school). For kids whose parents support the picket line, the teachers strike will feel like a string of snow days or spring vacation sprung early: no school, no homework, and lots of TV and video games. But for adults, the strike is far more complex.

pink blow-up flamingo below Schnitzer marquee, February 5, 2014

blow-up flamingo, Schnitzer marquee, February 5, 2014

Just before the vote two nights ago, supporters rallied outside the Schnitzer. I witnessed maybe 50-100 people, mostly young adults, out in the below-freezing cold holding signs, chanting, singing, speechifying, and otherwise displaying support for the teachers. One young woman even carried aloft a blow-up pink flamingo in honor of the school-board members' recent flockings. An observer, I listened to someone singing a classic protest song, noting a handful of IWW members in attendance, holding their large, red-and-black banner. Cars passing up Broadway honked in sympathy. News vans had been parked on the street since early morning when I left for work. A bareheaded, clean-cut man milled around in a wool dress coat, holding a long, thin reporter's notebook, before returning every few minutes to the warmth of the ArtBar next door, monitoring happenings through plate glass. A thirty-something woman in a long down coat walking past turned to her companions to ask, "Flash mob?" (Okay, so not everyone follows local news.) A police car drove by without stopping. And through it all, a lone security guard strolled back and forth, back straight, shoulders out, keeping watch.

Portland teachers strike vote: rally attendees, security guard

Photographers with long-lensed cameras documented the evening, crouching for good angles, as the temperature kept dropping, by then in the low-20's. Passersby held their smartphones above their heads, capturing video. Unfamiliar with shooting at night and unsure if my own images would be anything but blurry, I pressed the shutter again and again. After about a half hour, despite wearing an undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, two thick wool sweaters, a down vest, down jacket, jeans, a ski-worthy hat, two pairs of socks in tall, sheepskin-lined Hunter boots, two thick wool scarves, and wool fingerless gloves atop leather gloves, my fingers had gone numb. A little after seven o'clock, the teachers having all grouped inside the Hall, the rally wrapped up, banners rolled, signs drug off. The oft-closed block of SW Main Street between the Schnitzer and the Winningstad Theatre emptied rapidly, people dispersing. Attention shifted towards the remaining strike supporters led by someone with a bullhorn standing in front of the front Schnitzer entrance. My fingers barely able to click the lens cap back on my camera, I turned and walked the few blocks home to dinner.

Schnitzer Concert Hall marquee, February 5, 2014

Fittingly, I pass the Schnitzer Concert Hall nearly every morning on my way to the bus shuttling me to work in a long, roundabout route, an hour's commute northwest up to St. Johns, one of the poorer parts of town. As I've written about before, a year and a half ago I quit adjunct teaching for technical colleges for a more stable job working inside a public elementary school, college teaching as a profession having crashed onto the proverbial rocks, broken up into a million underemployed, underpaid adjuncts. By contrast, the teachers I talked to yesterday at school felt moved and humbled by the numbers filling the Hall that night, overwhelmingly aligned in their primary goal of class-size reduction. The difference? They'd formed a union: the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT).

If you're a regular reader or friend, you know I currently work inside a PPS school as a private contractor, paid with foundation grant money. My colleagues and I teach students with reading difficulties one-on-one in four North Portland (read: poor and minority) public elementary schools. In our separate schools, we form little islands of outsiders surrounded by certified PPS classroom teachers and specialists. We don't have to attend staff or teacher-development meetings, extracurricular family nights, act as outside greeters in freezing weather, or perform any of the myriad daily-weekly-monthly-quarterly-yearly tasks required of PPS teachers. But, then, neither are we paid anywhere nearly as well as they or have their health care and leave benefits, let alone a pension. Like step-siblings, we're members of the public-school family—but as watery relations rather than blood, meaning we don't get invited to the teachers' occasional after-work happy hours and we don't get all the memos.

Even so, this strike topic isn't just something I read about every morning during breakfast like most Portlanders. There's no distance for me on this one. If the strike vote can't pressure the school board to concede within the next week and a half on the teachers' core demand for class-size reduction via more hiring, the strike will affect me and many others, unintended repercussions rippling in the sea called public education. Everyone who works in the schools, union or not, private or unclassified, must now take sides. There is no neutral anymore, no Switzerland—not for the PAT. And according to PAT sources, most of the district subs won't be breaking the strike, leaving the district stranded and schools doing little more than babysitting with movies and coloring pages in the gym. A teachers strike will create national-newsworthy levels of chaos.

street scene, Portland teachers strike vote, February 5, 2014

So why haven't I posted anything about the strike before now? Why have I been so quiet when I used to rant and rage about the state of higher education in this country and the lowly status of teachers in our culture? Well, that's because I've since had a stable job and health insurance to lose. I've been crossing my fingers for months during these protracted negotiations that it wouldn't come to this, knowing deep-down it probably would, since that seems to be how life works. Often, the things we dread most do happen, so we can face our darkest fears—as if there were some Great-Guru-in-the-Sky charged with our individual personal growth (a concept I don't buy).

One of my fears has been: Will I have the courage to back up my mouth in support of unions and refuse to cross the coming picket line, knowing I could potentially lose my job or an unpredictable amount of income, possibly careening me into debt, since, single and privately employed in education, I have little savings from years of underemployment, modest income, and recent medical bills, with no union at my own back? This teachers strike won't benefit me in any way. It will only hurt, something like giving myself a lifetime of paper cuts all at once, just for fun.

But at least I'll be able to look myself in the mirror. Yesterday, my school's union rep thanked me, her usually cheerful face showing all the signs of fatigue, when I told her privately I wouldn't be working through the strike. The same day, a fourth-grade teacher told me she'd understand if people have to work, but she'd rather they supported the teachers. Other teachers have said the same thing. So this decision—this act of refusing to cross a picket line—means something. It matters.

Schnitzer Concert Hall, back-door marquee, February 5, 2014

Last week, I came across the following adage in Brené Brown's book, Daring Greatly: "Jump, and the net will appear." Butterflies flutter in my gut at the thought. The original quote by 19th-century American naturalist John Burroughs actually uses the older, more quaint word, leap: "Leap, and the net will appear." And so, eyes open, I leap.


  1. Anonymous7/2/14 18:45

    That's some mighty fine writing, Brooke. Good luck. cb

  2. Thank you, Carol. Stay safe this weird weather weekend.


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